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Picture Imperfect

The introduction posted at the beginning of "Picturing the Century: One Hundred Years of Photography from the National Archives," now at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, asserts: "Photographs are time machines. They allow us to look back in history, freeze a moment in time, and imagine ourselves as part of the past."

I'm not so sure about that. Rather than time machines, maybe photographs are more like windows that let us glimpse those moments frozen in time. And rather than allow us to "imagine ourselves as part of the past," perhaps photographs, especially very old ones, reemphasize the distance between then and now.

At least, that's what I got from this traveling exhibition of mostly black-and-white photographs, drawn from the millions in the collection of the National Archives and Records Administration. The oldest images seem almost like snapshots from another world. Two quotes from Susan Sontag's landmark 1977 book, On Photography, come to mind: "Photographs are valued because they give information. They tell one what there is; they make an inventory," and "A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck. It drifts away into a soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading."

The show is organized chronologically and broken down into six thematic sections. The works of six photographers are highlighted in separate sections. More on those later. The first grouping, "A New Century," gives us such slices of early 20th-century history as a shot of the first Wright Brothers flight in North Carolina in 1903 and a four-panel view of the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In 1913 -- Trying out the new assembly line, taken in Detroit, we see an emblem of the early days of American car culture. (Most of the photos have titles taken from their archival captions; in many cases, the pictures were shot anonymously.)

A stiffly formal portrait of a Hawaiian mother and her five offspring, Lee Wai She and Children (1913), is oddly poignant, possibly because the people in it seem somehow familiar and alien at the same time. Despite the formality of the carefully posed bodies, there is an intimacy that can be conveyed only through photography. Sontag again: "In the normal rhetoric of the photographic portrait, facing the camera signifies solemnity, frankness, the disclosure of the subject's essence." Even a more casual shot by M.A. Crosby, The Sam McCall family of Wilcox County, Ala. (1910), has much the same effect.

"The Great War and the New Era" includes images from World War I: an American base hospital in France, a group of women working on the home front, soldiers at an Army camp in New Jersey. "The Great Depression and the New Deal" plunges us into a chronicle of decline and rebound. There's a haunting picture by Arnold Eagle and David Robbins called One-third of a Nation (1938), which portrays an obviously impoverished old woman standing outside a shop window that displays an elegantly dressed mannequin.

World War II is chronicled in "A World in Flames," which contains something of a surprise. Among the mostly generic shots is a 1943 portrait of some pilots, taken by none other than "Commander Edward J. Steichen" -- yes, the great photographer in a lesser-known incarnation as a military man. The section also includes a somber 1944 image of shrouded bodies of sailors about to be buried at sea and a grim shot of a heap of wedding rings accumulated by the Nazis.

The "Postwar America" grouping -- the show's smallest -- takes us from the late 1940s through the 1950s and into the early 1960s. A 1956 picture by Abbey Rowe shows the young David Eisenhower at his birthday party, surrounded by a group that includes his father and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. The exhibition's first color photo is one from 1963 by Robert L. Knudsen of JFK and John Kennedy Jr. in a boat on a beach at Newport, Rhode Island.

The show culminates in "Century's End," which gradually nudges us into more contemporary times. The turbulent late 1960s -- Vietnam, the Apollo program -- give way to the 1970s, including one especially memorable image: Richard Nixon departs from the White House before Gerald Ford was sworn in as President (1974), by Oliver F. Atkins. The photographer is just inside the plane, looking out at Nixon and Ford, with Pat Nixon giving Betty Ford a goodbye kiss and the Nixon daughters and their husbands approaching in the rear.

Near the end of this section is an extraordinary shot of six First Ladies gathered for 1994's A Tribute to America's First Ladies. Photographer Barbara Kinney has somehow caught the women in a candid moment: Nancy Reagan looking bored and detached, Hillary Clinton whispering something to Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter smiling benignly, and Betty Ford rapt in conversation with Barbara Bush. Talk about layers of subtext!

With few exceptions, the photographs in "Picturing America" -- there are more than a hundred -- are of interest more as historical documents than as art. (Here I disagree with one of Sontag's opinions: "Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.") And most of those exceptions are by the photographers whose works are grouped together in individual sections interspersed throughout the show, each called "Portfolio," followed by the photographer's name.

The portfolio for Walter Lubken, who documented 25 projects in 17 Western states as official photographer for the U.S. Reclamation Service between 1903 and 1917, includes one such exception. Canal leading to Holtville power plant in Holtville, Calif. (1909) rises above its prosaic title with a beautifully balanced composition that juxtaposes a broadly curving canal, a small boat on shore, and a sort of wooden pier leading to a platform with a man standing on it.

There's a similarly lovely image in the portfolio of Charles Fenno Jacobs, who was recruited by Edward Steichen to join the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The piece, called Man working on hull of U.S. submarine at Electric Boat Co., Groton, Conn. (1943), is a complex, layered composition that looks more like a monochromatic painting than a photo.

The best of the best are three pictures by Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange, two of America's best documentary photographers whose work also qualifies as art. Hine is well-known for his photographs of immigrants being processed at Ellis Island, and in 1908, he became a photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, an organization set up to expose child neglect and abuse in the workplace. His portfolio includes a few of those images of children, but the most powerful shot is one that seems simultaneously old (it was shot in 1920) and new. It's identified here as Power house mechanic working on steam pump, although I've seen it widely reproduced elsewhere under the title Steamfitter: a stylized portrait of a muscular male in a tank top adjusting a piece of heavy equipment. Hine is after an idealized image of the common laborer, but the picture wouldn't seem out of place displayed alongside, say, Herb Ritts's Fred with Tires.

Like Hine, Lange, who in 1935 became a staff photographer with the Federal Resettlement Administration (which was later renamed the Farm Security Administration), also had an uncanny knack for taking realistic pictures of the disenfranchised: migrant workers, the homeless, the unemployed. Two such images are included here. One, called White Angel Breadline, shot in San Francisco in 1933 or 1934, features a melancholy man with a tin cup standing along a railing, with hordes of other hungry people in line behind him.

The other photograph, Between Weedpatch and Lamont, Kern County, Calif. Children living in camp (1940), is a portrait of two small, sad-eyed children peeking through a hole in the wooden door of what is almost certainly a shanty. Like the best-known work of both Hine and Lange, it displays the photographer's empathy and compassion -- characteristics that place him/her in the ranks of the great humanist artists.

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Michael Mills

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