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The Baker collection at NCMA shows the best of the mid-20th century

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Photography wasn't always accepted to be the fine art it is today. It's easy to lose sight of this as photography retrospectives fill major museums and most of us now carry cameras in our pockets at virtually all times. While the eminent Alfred Stieglitz advocated for photography as fine art in the early 20th century, institutions were slower to adjust; New York's Museum of Modern Art established its photography department in 1940 and held its landmark exhibition The Family of Man in 1955.

In A Discerning Eye: Julian T. Baker Jr. Photography Collection, the North Carolina Museum of Art displays black-and-white photographs from pioneering artists, mid-century masters and contemporary figures, many of whom elevated the medium. This exhibition offers the first chance to see these works given by Baker's family and estate following the Raleigh native's death in 2011. While this gift is just a portion of Baker's collection of more than 700 photographs, with it the museum gains excellent additions to its collection.

Landscape was an early photographic genre to be accepted, and Baker's collection reveals his interest in abstract landscapes. Dramatic examples by Ansel Adams, Aaron Siskind, Brett Weston (son of famed photographer Edward Weston), Minor White and Michael Kenna are scattered throughout the exhibition. From Adams' high-contrast photograph of snow and mountain cliffs with velvety black and stunning white contrasts, to Siskind's focus on details and textures of painted surfaces and Weston's undulating lines of sand dunes that foreshadow op art, each artist's mastery of composition reveals abstraction's abundance in daily life.

Portraiture also was a dominant force in early photography. Baker's collection reveals his interest in the psychological, particularly individual states of mind. Ralph Eugene Meatyard may be a less familiar name, but this may change soon as an exhibition of his work organized by the Art Institute of Chicago travels around the country. His "Untitled" (circa 1960) presents a powerful contemplation of age. A boy wears an old-man latex mask and looks down at a doll that he holds in his lap. The mask hides the boy's expression, forcing the viewer to contemplate his thoughts.

Meatyard continues contrasting ages in "Untitled" (1959), touchingly conveying the emotionality of growing up by carefully positioning in the foreground an older boy looking down, absorbed in thought, while a younger boy in the background playfully raises his hand, signaling a more carefree, imaginative state. Nearby are works by Diane Arbus and Danny Lyon that capture the complex emotional lives of teenagers.

Family members should be the people photographers know best. The works on view by Harry Callahan and Sally Mann complicate the assumption. In Callahan's "Eleanor, Chicago" (1949), the wife of the photographer, a frequent subject, closes her eyes and shuts viewers out as she stands in water up to her neck, the water's surface blending with her flowing black hair. In "Shiva at Whistle Creek" (1992), Mann's daughter looks away evasively, her thoughts absorbed in the depths of the water that flows around her.

While many of Dorothea Lange's photographs resonate profoundly with psychological affect, "San Joaquin Valley, California" (1935) prevents the viewer from feeling a sense of connection to the woman and child due to the strong shadow cast over them by the tarp covering the truck they ride in. In contrast, Lyon's "The Line, Texas" (1968) offers a successful example of situating individuals in a compelling way. With its line of 13 African-American male prisoners digging with hoes, parallel rows of barbed wire fence and a leafless tree in the background's center, Lyon presents the bleakness of their world. Filling the entire frame of the camera, this line of men might be as endless as the horizon.

Kenneth Josephson offers a conceptual take on a person's relationship to a place. In the center of "New York State" (1970), an arm clad in a white uniform holds a photograph of a white ship in front of an ocean background. Josephson puts us in this person's shoes. Positioned in a nowhere/ everywhere sort of place, the image's ambiguity engages viewers.

As digital cameras mark the next phase of photography's history, and various lens filter effects enable anyone's shots to look artistic, the masters of the medium in A Discerning Eye challenge new artists to surpass their careful composition and the tonal depths that were achieved in darkrooms.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Masters of black and white."

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