AT MERIDIAN HOUSE, "In Spite of Everything, Yes: Ralph Steiner Looks at Photography" is touted as a show of "affirmative" photographs. That could easily translate into the schlock of recognition.

"To be a Pollyanna in our time is to be a fool," noted Steiner, the late photographer who co-curated the show with his wife. But he was willing to take the risk.

His orientation was such that he didn't have time for, say, Richard Avedon's recent series on working class people in the American West, whose subjects Steiner saw as "infected with a kind of spiritual acne which saps their will and hope for joy."

Fortunately for "In Spite of Everything, Yes" the camera was in good hands. The great photographers whose work is in this show avoided saccharine.

And so we stand with Henri Cartier- Bresson behind four pleasantly plump people "On the Banks of the Marne," watching the two couples zestily devour their lunch and drink their wine before shoving off again on the boat that waits below. A festive outing -- but the four picnickers sit apart from each other.

And we join the proprietor of a restaurant in Barcelona, sitting over his espresso and cigar at an outdoor table. Taken by Evelyn Hofer, it's a great photo not because the man looks like Jackie Gleason when he smiles, although he does. Its greatness lies in how his inviting look -- "Perhaps you will join me?" -- contrasts with the sinister appearance of men coming up the street behind him. And the snow-white cloth, not quite square with the table, that shames the dirty alleyway.

Many of the landscapes here are beautiful yet morose. Wynn Bullock did a bit of manipulating, but the effects are special, of a black ocean devouring rocks, or one sinuous tree outlined in a moonscape (possibly a sunscape). Minor White shows solemn majesty in the Grand Tetons or a stretch of ocean. And there is a tinge of sadness to Eliot Porter's "Apples on Tree After Frost, Tesuque, N.M.," with the golden apples like so many broken paper lanterns, dangling from the branches or lying on the ground.

The imprecise title for the show comes from a quote from van Gogh: "Let us crazy ones take delight in our eyesight in spite of everything, yes, let's!" There are some really fine images here, so it doesn't matter what you call it. "In Spite of Everything, Yes" has its grabby moments, in spite of itself. IN SPITE OF EVERYTHING, YES: RALPH STEINER LOOKS AT PHOTOGRAPHY --

Through September 4 at Meridian House, 1630 Crescent Place NW. Hours are 1 to 4, Sunday through Friday.