ANDOVER -- Sometimes self-congratulation is called for.
Back when photographs were seen and not bought, the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy started collecting them. It began with four Margaret Bourke-White pictures, purchased in 1934 for $5 apiece. Even factoring in inflation, those were fabulous bargains: A vintage Bourke-White print can go in the high five figures today.
The Addison's photographic holdings now comprise more than 6,000 images. They make up one of America's outstanding collections. It may not be up there with the Museum of Modern Art's or Eastman House's , but the collection is prodigally rich for an institution of the Addison's size.
There are, for example, 150 photographs by Walker Evans (an Andover alumnus), a complete set of Eadweard Muybridge's ``Animal Locomotion" series, and all 84 of the images that make up Robert Frank's ``The Americans. "
Twenty-four of the Frank images are grouped at the entrance to ``In Focus: 75 Years of Collecting American Photography," which runs at the Addison through July 31. Those photographs alone could make up a worthy show. Instead there are almost 200 other pictures, in an exhibition that takes up the museum's entire second floor.
The two dozen Franks are a bravura opening. Seeing them as one ascends the stairs is a bit like the experience of going to the third floor at the old MoMA and suddenly confronting Picasso's ``Guernica. " In both cases, Donald Rumsfeld best described the aesthetic response: ``shock and awe."
``In Focus" could have easily, and justifiably, gone the greatest-hits route. Certainly, there are many blue-chip names here (Sheeler , Siskind , Steichen , Stieglitz , Strand -- and that's just some of the S's). But the organizing principle is not fame, name, or even chronology. Instead, the show is organized thematically, with a canny looseness that lets the collection reveal both its depth and variety.
There are sections devoted to serial images, the human body, science and abstraction, industry and machinery, vernacular architecture, the city, the American West, and landscape generally. Categories frequently overlap, and why not? The multiple legs visible in Anna Gaskell's ``Untitled 71 (resemblance)" qualify it for either series or body. Francesca Woodman's ``House #4," could be body or architecture.
The categories are fairly porous within as well as between. Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz's West of tract homes and billboards coexists with Ansel Adams and William Henry Jackson's West of mountain and forest. Sometimes the strains combine, as in F. Jay Haynes's ``Gloster Mill" or Carleton Watkins's images of a 19th-century California gravel mine.
The architecture category finds room for exteriors, interiors, and what might best be called interiors within interiors. That's one way to describe William Eggleston's photograph of the contents of a freezer that's definitely not frost-free. No one can evoke the enchantment of the banal quite as well as Eggleston, and here we discover that's true frozen as well as thawed.
Landscape includes both natural and manmade varieties. Perhaps man-unmade would be a better term for Alexander Gardner's Civil War photographs and Dorothea Bright's six images of the Bloody Lane at Antietam , looking postcard-tranquil more than a century after so many died there.
``In Focus" is very shrewdly hung, and one of the great pleasures the show has to offer is noting how well neighboring images play off of one another. Kathy Grove's witty ``The Other Series" presents bodyless clothes in motion. It's next to eight Muybridge sequences of unclothed bodies in motion. The girl in Emmet Gowin's ``Nancy, Danville, VA" could be a sister of the boy in Diane Arbus's ``Child With a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park" (though you wouldn't want to meet the parents).
Again and again, images chime like bells in a carillon (of which, as it happens, the Andover campus possesses a notable example). Mark Klett's 1990 panoramic view of San Francisco hangs above Muybridge's 1877 panoramic view of that city. One of the more artful juxtapositions is the shared curvilinearity of the women pictured in E.J. Bellocq's ``Girl on the Wicker Chaise Longue " and Andre Kertesz's ``Satiric Dancer. " A viewer would swear Peter Sekaer's ``Four Girls Drawing on Brick Wall" was one of Helen Levitt's classic pictures of children in Harlem in the early '40s. To underscore the affinity, hanging to the right of the Sekaer is an actual Levitt.
Or there's the exquisiteness of four Evans contact prints of New York contrasted with the fat three-dimensionality of the bound volume of Muybridge's ``The Attitude of Animals in Motion. " The Evans prints and the Muybridge book are at opposite ends of the Addison, so their pairing isn't intentional. But that's what happens at the best shows. They inspire you to make your own connections.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.