Through A Lens Early

"Art," a certain painter once said, "is the only human endeavor where subsequent versions work the bugs in." He was right: the first cubist paintings were the best cubist paintings, and the first pop art the best pop art. It was likewise with the first 100 years of photography, when camera jockeys didn't have zoom lenses the size of Louisville Sluggers, exposures shorter than a neutrino's lifespan and computer chips that say "cheese" in 12 languages. In the century after the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot was able to fix shadow configurations on pieces of salted paper in 1839 (his "Trees with Reflection" dates from just after that), photographers didn't grapple just with cumbersome equipment. They struggled to learn to see. Sometimes the result was a dazzling visual--indeed, almost moral--clarity, as unusual to us late moderns as a smogless August day in Los Angeles.

When 253 such photographs have been as astutely collected (by the Gilman Paper Company) and as insightfully curated (by Pierre Apraxine and Maria Morris Hambourg) as they are in "The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century" at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the effect is breathtaking. From the swoony artiness of the Czech painter Alphonse Mucha's "Study for a Decorative Panel" (1908) to the earthy nobility of Walker Evans's "Negro Church, South Carolina" (1936), this show is as mandatory as was Matisse at the beginning of the season. If you don't grab the exhibition by July 4, you'll have to go to Scotland or Russia to catch up with it.