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"Visions from America" on display in Rochester
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Photographer Chris Verne's "Untitled (Galesburg #2)" is among the more than 100 images included in the Rochester Art Center's exhibit. The photos span six decades and are all part of the Whitney Museum of American Art's permanent collection. (Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art)
When you say the word America it can conjure an image. It's something photographers know all too well. This weekend, the Rochester Art Center begins showing images of America -- a survey of American photography drawn from the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Rochester, Minn. — Kris Douglas stands at the beginning of the exhibit, where groups of black-framed photos hang on a gallery wall. The photographs span six decades. Taken together, they present a window into the shifting landscape of American culture.

Douglas is curating this show, which he says chock full of some of the most famous names in photography.

"In the section behind us we have Aaron Siskind, who's very well known. Kenneth Josephson, William Eggleston, Lewis Baltz, Charles Ray, Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus. And that's all within the 30 feet where we're standing," says Douglas, his eyes scanning the space.

Douglas moves over to a group of photos dating back to the 1940s and '50s. These are the earliest in the show. The images range from a young boy covering his face with a photo of himself, to another of a few drips of paint spattered on light background.

"I think it becomes kind of representative of a post-World War II feeling, not based on material, but in context," Douglas explains. "You have photographers reacting in the same way that other artists are to their environment, so I think it's very representational of that time period."

Another piece engulfs an entire wall. It's a compilation of several images by the same artist, all of which focus on 1950s-style housing going up in California. A bit further in there's an image called "As the Serpent." It's a magnified picture of a young girl, reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland.

Another image called "Friends and Enemies" offers a quiet commentary on race in America. It's a picture of a black man and white woman posed against a muted backdrop. Kris Douglas says it compels the viewer to create a narrative.

"There's no obvious turmoil or anything that seems really problematic," says Douglas. "They have this very forward stare. They are really as blank and still as possible. But then referencing the title you're wondering, 'What is their relationship? Do they live together? Do they know one another?'"

Douglas says the photograph illustrates something that is deeply important to the country. It's the same kind of cultural undercurrent running through Alec Soth's work. He's Minnesota photographer who recently published a book of images gathered from towns up and down the Mississippi River. Soth is in Rochester, working with local high school students in an outreach project linked to the show.

Taking a break, Soth settles into a conference room and ponders the question of what makes American photography American.

"In the last year I've done photography in China and Brazil and England, and I'm not as good at it because I don't know the culture. There are certain signifiers that mean something to me," says Soth.

"I recently took this picture of this young guy in his 20s with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and it occurred to me -- what does that mean to someone in China? He was in fatigues, so it seems very innocent to me," he continues. "But peanut butter and jelly isn't something that innocent, necessarily, to someone in another country -- or I don't know if it is."

You can't catch any of Soth's pictures in this show, but you can find his work in museums around the country, including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

The 100-plus photos that line the walls of the Rochester Art Center's main gallery will be on display through the middle of March. After that, "Visions from America" heads back to New York.

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