THAT the Baltimore Museum of Art has some great photographs in its vaults -- images that are historically important, intellectually interesting or just plain beautiful -- is true. A visitor might be forgiven for drawing few other conclusions or deep thoughts from a pair of appealing if ever so slightly air-headed exhibitions now on view in the ground-floor Link/Benesch Galleries.
One show consists of only seven large-scale photographs, or, if you will, series of photographs, since some of the works involve multiple images. "Common/Places: Contemporary Photography From Germany and Northern Europe" is a tightly focused little survey -- perhaps too tightly focused, seeing as it spotlights not only a special theme (the ordinary as subject matter) but a geographic region that is far narrower than its title would have you believe. Only one artist, the Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra, is from outside Germany.
Contrary to the tongue-in-cheek title of the second show, "Parallel Tracks: The History of Photography in Two Brief Installments" accomplishes no such thing. Mounted without labels along two facing walls, the photographs in "Tracks" chart an entertaining but radically abridged (and ultimately unilluminating) arc in the history of photography.
Make that two arcs. On each side of the narrow gallery, you'll find a couple of dozen images leaning cheek-by-jowl along an extended shelf. On one side, they fall under the rubric of street photography; on the other, studio. Each "history" begins around 1860 and then, moving rather quickly, progresses from a portrait of a Nubian model by Roger Fenton and a shot of a Parisian meat stand by Charles Marville to a posed shot of one of William Christenberry's limp Ku Klux Klan dolls and a grainy (and very unposed) Peeping Tom-style shot of a prostitute by Merry Alpern. While both tracks end in the early 1990s, the chronology is not, strictly speaking, linear. In other words, there's a little jumping around.
There are some nice pictures here. William Eggleston's untitled print from around 1980 of a twilit service station (on the "street" side) is pure gorgeousness, as is Edward Weston's sexy 1929 "Pepper" and Imogen Cunningham's 1932 "Nude" (both on the "studio" side). But what any picture reveals about any other is unclear. They're like mile markers on a high-speed highway, whizzing by too fast to mark anything except progress.
Featuring photographs mostly from the 1990s, "Common/Places" is best viewed as a kind of epilogue to "Tracks," which only takes us up to about a decade ago. With a focus on the everyday -- e.g., Dijkstra's affectless portrait of a bikini-clad girl at the beach or Thomas Florschuetz's close-ups of his hand -- it picks up themes of both street and studio, uniting them in its attention to the mundane, whether it be found on the sidewalk or orchestrated in the atelier.
The most compelling work in the show has got to be Sabine Hornig's "Window I," a deadpan shot of an empty storefront that has so many layers it's dizzying. In it, you see not only the unfurnished interior space but the grimy window itself, the reflection of the artist's camera and the building across the street and, since the image is mounted behind glass, your own reflection and that of the gallery you're standing in.
It's a fitting end, neatly tying up the spontaneity of the street and the artificiality of the studio and depositing them both squarely in the carpeted halls of the art museum.
PARALLEL TRACKS: The History of Photography in Two Brief Installments
COMMON/PLACES: Contemporary Photography From Germany and Northern Europe -- Both through May 25 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st streets, Baltimore. 410-396-7100. www.artbma.org. Open 11 to 5 Wednesdays through Fridays; first Thursday of every month until 9; Saturdays and Sundays 11 to 6. Admission $7; seniors and students $5; 18 and under free; free on the first Thursday of the month.