The inflammatory title of "Spectrum: Future of Photography," the seven-artist group show that opens the fall season at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is part ironic, part suggestive. In the newness of these pictures there is much that is traditional. Their freshness is the product of crossed familiarities, of old boundaries erased.
Avant-garde photography, with its usual self-consciousness, edginess and reaching, may not be every viewer's cup of tea. But shows that champion newness are now in short supply in this city, and the Spectrum exhibitions -- this one is the sixth -- are about the best we have. They're supposed to scan horizons by exploring chosen chapters of contemporary art. In "Future of Photography," Washington's John Gossage, who put the show together, has done exactly that.
His photographs are not on view. But his spirit's in this show. Through his art and through teaching, his scholarship and books, Gossage, 41, has often struggled to dismantle the wall long separating documentary photography from photography as art.
Photographers "shoot" pictures. That verb suggests the hunt, the battleground, some dependence upon chance. The word art implies the studio, with its patient choices and slow manipulations. The artists here, the best of them, are rooted in both camps. They rely on chance encounters, yet control what we see. A sense of genres interwoven is felt throughout this show.
The Englishman Paul Graham, Germany's Volker Heinze, New York's Michael Spano and Washington's James Sherwood do not pose their pictures. They work out in the world -- Graham among the roadways of contested Northern Ireland, Heinze in Berlin and other German cities, Spano on Manhattan streets, and Sherwood at the beach. They shoot what they discover, their work is in some sense unplanned, but their subjects are not new. Street photographs such as Spano's pictures of pedestrians inevitably suggest Robert Frank's and Walker Evans'. Sid Grosman, Harry Callahan, and other artists, too, have prowled, as does James Sherwood, among bodies on the beach. The torn-up streets of Belfast and the Berlin Wall are the stuff of daily news.
Yet these artists are intent on something more than reportage. They manipulate the real. They strive in different ways to turn fortuities into art.
The method of James Sherwood suggests the movie "Blow-Up." Half the pictures he shows us are comparatively conventional color shots -- of sunbathers and swimmers. It is the other half -- the small details beside them -- that gives his work its sense of mystery and strangeness. We see what seems the shadow of a decapitated body, or the shadow of a seagull, or a head upon the sand. Each of these details has been chosen by the artist from the wider scene beside it. The eye that scans his broader views wanders through the image -- from beer can to bikini, from sand to breaking surf. But once that eerie detail -- that passing bird, that shadowed head -- has been pulled out of the field, our reading of that field, the center of our interest, has been forever changed.
Graham's large color pictures made in Northern Ireland (more will go on view on Tuesday at the Jones Troyer Gallery, 1614 20th St. NW.) are half horrific, half bucolic. The grass is green, the hedges clipped, cows graze in the meadows, yet the colors -- of red and white and blue -- painted on the curbstones or poured upon the street say this turf belongs to Unionists -- Catholics beware. That sense of violence as a commonplace is nowhere glimpsed more tellingly than in one of his photographs of a roundabout in Belfast. The paving stones have been torn up, and no doubt hurled at soldiers. Three men equipped with automatic weapons stroll the quiet streets. The traffic keeps on flowing; a gentleman in office dress is on his way to work.
Spano works with Polaroid negatives, which, once he's snapped them on the street, he exposes to bright sunlight, thus partially solarizing the image. Blacks turn into whites. People become ghosts. His strongest pictures lend a look of utter strangeness to the entirely familiar. So do Volker Heinze's. He doesn't manipulate his negatives. His pictures take their eeriness from their exaggerated depth of field: A simple kitchen table top assumes the vastness of a desert; the rough top of a concrete wall becomes a foreground range of mountains. Of the works of all the artists showing, Heinze's are most open and abstract.
Bruce Weber's are the sexiest. Weber, the only really well-known artist represented, is the man who makes the ads for Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. His true subject is lust. The homoerotic pictures he displayed at the last Whitney Biennial were fired by the look of handsome male flesh. Here, among the males, are some female nudes as well. If the magazines would publish them, they would sell anything at all.
Helen Chadwick's projected-on-leather self-portraits, with their rococo frames, combine 18th-century lushness with contemporary self-importance. They left me cold. Nor was I much impressed by the ominous roadside eccentrics competently recorded by Jim Stone. He photographs the "Deaf Church Car Wash," "Baptist Missionaries Teaching the Children About Jesus and Watermelon," stuffed foxes, and "Raiter, Former Marine, Converted to Judaism, Living in His Car, Selling Junk From the Hood at the Airport: Minneapolis, Minnesota." Diane Arbus he is not.
This Spectrum show is, as such shows tend to be, a bit of a mixed bag. But be glad it's there. When Ned Rifkin left the Corcoran for his new job at the Hirshhorn, it was feared that the series would cease. The Corcoran -- though it still lacks a director and a curator of contemporary art -- has been smart enough to turn to such gifted free-lance curators as Gossage and John Beardsley, who have kept up the good work.
Contemporary painting often arrives late here. But in the field of photographs as art, this city has for 20 years been kept up to date. Curator Walter Hopps and dealer Harry Lunn, both of whom have since moved on, deserve much of the credit, as do the Corcoran's Jane Livingston -- and Gossage, with whom she has often worked.
He is among the best -- and among the best connected -- photographers in Washington. He teaches at the University of Maryland. His curated exhibitions have brought us the photographs of Louis Faurer, Ralston Crawford and The New York School. For 12 years he's been showing at Castelli Graphics in Manhattan. His dark and mordant exhibition "Stadt des Schwarz: The Berlin Photographs 1982-1986" will open there Thursday. What he knows and sees he shares. His Spectrum show will close Dec. 13.
The Corcoran is also showing the subtle, lovely, entirely unshocking, photographs of Richard Pare. If you have ever tried to make a tourist's snapshot that does justice to a monument that moves you -- say the striped cathedral at Orvieto or San Marco in Venice or Le Corbusier's Villa Savoie outside Paris -- Pare's quiet, flawless images will fill your heart with envy. In every one you feel his admiration for the masters, his competence, his love. A number of his images, most of Japanese gardens, are now on view at Kathleen Ewing, 1609 Connecticut Ave. NW. His show at the Corcoran closes Oct. 4.