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Looking for America 

Forget the chocolate hearts. Valentine's Day falls in the dead of Lent this year, so this is a time for reflection. Especially in the wake of 9/11 and the potentially even broader Enron debacle. Taking stock of ourselves -- of America -- of who we are and what we really stand for is the order of the day, or should be. And while the reflexive flag waving that was our first response to terror still lingers, defining America remains an elusive pursuit. It is not easy to say exactly what America looks like, yet, as with so many other things, we may know it when we see it. In that vein, NOMA's O Say Can You See exhibit of classic American photography makes for an interesting visual journey.

A nation of immigrants, our forebears often arrived by boat. It was always a momentous occasion, as seen in Alfred Stieglitz's iconic image, The Steerage. Of its making, Stieglitz said, "I stood spellbound for a while. I saw shapes related to one another -- a picture of shapes. Rembrandt came into my mind and I wondered if he would have felt as I did." Stieglitz was a pioneer as a photographic modernist, yet his view of a boatload of immigrants landing in New York in 1907 seemed to span centuries, as men in straw katies and bowlers appear with women draped in the near-biblical shawls and head scarves of Europe's hinterlands. Beyond the smorgasbord of forms, it's a kaleidoscopic view of humanity in transition.

Transition to what, is the question. Like America itself, this is a show that covers a lot of time and space. What we see is old and new, extroverted and introspective, and, like America, there is something for everyone. Beyond the pure Americana of the numerous historic, vintage and scenic photographs, a more subtle blend of sensibilities appears in work by Walker Evans, Willard Van Dyke and Wright Morris. Evans was known for his ability to reduce everything to visual and psychic essentials in such haunting visions as his Farm House, Westchester County, 1936, a view of a stark white farm house with an oddly gothic old black pickup truck silhouetted in front. Factor in the twisted, barren trees and the oddly portentous light, and it's half minimalism, half Wuthering Heights. Evans was great at cutting to the quick.

Less known is Wright Morris, an elegantly poetic Midwestern writer/photographer whose images of the heartland rarely fail to resonate. Here, Barber Shop, 1947, a view of an empty barber chair with images of ghostly patrons reflected in the dusty Victorian mirror behind it, evokes vintage Middle America at mid-century. A scene almost frozen in time after long years of war and the Depression, Barber Shop is Twilight Zone Americana with echoes of the social-landscape photographers thrown in for good measure. Not far away, the social landscape appears full blown in another reflection, in Bruce Davidson's Girl Combing Her Hair (from his 1959 Brooklyn Gangs series). Here a teenage girl preens herself in the mirrored front of a cigarette machine along the boardwalk, in a psychological film noir slice of everyday life.

More celebratory is Oscar Valeton's World War II Ends: Joyous Citizens Hail Surrender. Whooping it up with the sort of unbridled exuberance that only Orleanians seem able to muster at a moment's notice, the flag-waving folk in this image, dated Aug. 15, 1945, have transformed their patriotic pride into a spontaneous street parade. More ironic is Lee Friedlander's New York, 1965, a view of Old Glory spread out in a shop window, flanked by canned goods. The only human form is a shiny black oxford jutting from the shadows along the mottled sidewalk in a scene that is ordinary yet startling for its juxtaposition of patriotism and business as usual.

In Ted Jackson's The Bottoms, an elderly man asleep in his shanty near downtown Shreveport uses a flag as a makeshift blanket -- which makes for quite a contrast with the American flag patch on the shoulder of the figure in Apollo 12 Astronaut on the Moon, 1969, the famous NASA moon mission photo. Obviously assembled in response to the 9/11 crisis, O Say Can You See offers a thought-provoking view of the many facets of American life as seen by some of our most perceptive photographers.

click to enlarge Lesser-known photographer Wright Morris and his Barber Shop, 1947, evoke a Middle America at mid-century.
  • Lesser-known photographer Wright Morris and his Barber Shop, 1947, evoke a Middle America at mid-century.
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