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Viewing a World Between Wars : LACMA photography show offers an Electronic Age vision of the way we were

It looked pretty much like a traditional, if superior, survey of classic modernist photography when it opened at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last winter. The sense that there was something funny about it was so vague one was inclined to write it off to gloomy weather. “The New Vision” is another of a worthy brace of photo shows celebrating the 150th birthday of the medium. It concentrates on innovations forged between the two world wars. Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and about 65 more masters in 125 prints make up the all-star cast, along with some surprises like shots by non-photographers like Rene Magritte and Constantin Brancusi.

Nothing wrong with that.

There will still be nothing wrong with it when the exhibition opens Thursday at the County Museum of Art. Here, however, it becomes clear that that feeling of oddity at the Met was about something real, at least about something aesthetically real. By a coincidence too perfect to have been planned, “The New Vision” appears at LACMA simultaneously with two other compelling shows about art from the 1920’s and ‘30s. “Envisioning America” concerns the modernist imaginings of George Grosz and other German artists in Berlin during the yeasty, decadent days of the Weimar Republic. “Thomas Hart Benton; An American Original” revives a long-scorned artist who gave American an heroically cozy, drawlingly consoling, mythic image of itself during the dark days of the Great Depression.

What does it all mean?

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Those who poke through art exhibitions like seers sifting through ashes are liable to see omens on the wall. It is the final decade of the century. As the millennium approaches so do the doomsday fantasies that go with closing centuries. No wonder people are asking themselves if the tinseled, hedonistic ‘80s just past were not like the ‘20s they resemble--the end of modernism, a prelude to economic disaster and apocalypse.

And no wonder, then, these exhibitions seem both compelling familiar and poignantly remote. History doesn’t really repeat itself, it just intimidates us into thinking it’s going to. What history does do is move on like a river propelling the raft of civilization along, zagging from one bank to the other. Occasionally we land on a sand bar to take stock, look at the other shore where we used to be and realize we are never going to get back to that point again.

These exhibitions feel like something seen back across the Rubicon. They are about a place in time to which we will never return.

But where were we?

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We stand on the shore of the Electronic World looking back at the Machine Age. “The New Vision " provides clear understanding of how intimately modernism was mixed up with machinery--celebrating it, hating it, coping with it or riding the excitement of its power like a mechanical bull in a Texas bar.

Naturally an exhibition of photographs would do that. They are, after all made mechanically and these looked, mesmerized, at a mechanical world.

The show and its superior book-catalogue divide into subject-matter sections which subdivide into poetic leitmotifs. One show that the nude body came to imitate perfect, spare machinery and then literally turned into a mechanical robot in Hans Belmer’s “The Doll.” Mechanical objectivity turned in on itself, exploding into the Hindenburg disaster, imploding into cracked absurdity in John Heartfield’s Dadaist shot of a press worker whose head has turned into a newspaper. The French call it la deformation professionnelle .

The New York skyline was formed by industrial-mechanical advance. In Bernice Abbott’s elongated peek down Exchange Place in 1933 the ambience of power is still stylish and humane. The best picture in the city section may be Lewis Hines’ breathtaking shot of a laborer suspended on a cable called “Icarus, Empire State Building.” The worker was an individual, a mythic figure. Today the myth is unemployed.

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Behind this crisp, avant-garde photography lay the notion that the medium should stop trying to look like painting and look like itself. That simple decision gives it a jolting freshness. Moholy-Nagy’s shot of an empty street on New Year’s morning in 1930 is practically devoid of people but it’s not about the kind of abandonment and existential anomie such an image would be now. The concrete is clean, solid and confident. New York doesn’t look like that no more. Its teeming crowds are like so many predatory computerized Pac-Men.

Machinery itself is celebrated as if its bolts and cogs were parts of some magnificent piano on which to play the social symphony. Ralph Steiner loved power switches. Now we love power breakfasts. Symptom of a service society.

Walker Evans saw what a world of checkered cabs and El stairs did to a black woman in 1929. Her humanity was ennobled by her fur coat and cloche hat. In those days a successful blend with the melting pot was a source of pride. Today subcultural separation is king.

In Paris, Brassai saw that the leisure created by Industrial Age wealth caused young dudes to go to the bordello and pick a girl from the nude buffet. Some things don’t change. Murder became more matter-of-fact in Weegee’s downshot of the cops photographing a head fallen from a cake box.

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At first it’s irritating to come across the brace of celebrity photos--Gary Cooper by George Holyningen-Huene, Marlene Dietrich by James Doolittle, Picasso by Man Ray. What is this, some artworld version of People magazine? New York-L.A. obsession with celebrity? Then the point strikes you and you paraphrase Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard” intoning, “Then they had faces! " We have an official style so bland that Gary Trudeau can’t figure a way to depict the President of the United States. Thank goodness for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the last living faces.

Modernist photography developed hand in glove with advanced painting and sculpture, sharing its aesthetic concerns. Stieglitz’s gallery showed Cezanne as well as photo art. Man Ray painted. El Lizitsky took Malevich’s painting as a model and Moholy-Nagy worked at the German Bauhaus with the painters.

But photography was headed another way. As Christopher Phillips points out in his catalogue essay, the approach of World War II caused more and more photographers to think of their art as a social tool that should operate in the real world as reporter and documentary witness. After the war, art photographers reversed the trend, readapting the techniques of the original avant-garde to a means of private expression that many of the pioneers had come to see as outmoded. In a sense it was over before it was over.

Today photography lives in a land of such blended borders as to be almost indistinguishable as a free-standing medium. Galleries show fashion photographers hip-on-thigh with metaphysical visionaries. Conceptual art has so thoroughly absorbed photography that observers don’t even bother to make crucial distinctions between the differing wavelengths broadcast by painting and photography. In the newspaper business, “art” refers to the photograph reproduced to illustrate a story.

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So here we stand amid the anonymous hum of the Electronic shore looking across time to an irretrievable place where things were clear. Maybe it’s just hindsight.

The New Vision: Photography Between the World Wars, Ford Motor Company Collection from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000.

Hours: Tue.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Opens Thursday; ends July 15. Admission: $5 for adults; $3.50 for students with ID and seniors over 62, and $1 for children under 17.

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