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The other exhibition, Seeing Beauty, has a smashing picture by the Italian photographer Mario Giacomelli. Better known in Europe than here, Giacomelli (1925–2000) brought to still photography the slashing immediacy of black-and-white photography that postwar neorealist filmmakers like Rossellini and De Sica brought to cinema. His 1958 image of a village in Puglia fills the frame with an astounding vocabulary of textures: even human figures seem hacked from the mineral varieties surrounding them. The pileup of whitewashed houses and cobbled streets possesses the ancient fastness that everyone who visits Southern Italy feels but can’t explain. (The fastness holds only until an earthquake hits.) Washlines, tiles, mottled plaster, tipsy houses, crooked cobblestones, chimney pots, somebody entering a house or climbing a steep street — all ascend from the photo’s massive base to a more friable and fragile apex topped off by a foreboding rank of clouds. It’s a landscape as meditative object: as you look at it, it changes on you.

There are other strong images — Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl pictures, Walker Evans’s portrait of a withered sharecropper, nudes by Edward Weston and Bill Brandt, and shrouded daguerreotype delicacies. But the museum made a mistake in doing anything more than titling the exhibition Seeing Beauty. We can take it from there. We’re not mopes. We don’t need the writing on the wall: “IS BEAUTY ALWAYS BEAUTIFUL?” “WHO DEFINES BEAUTY?” I spend enough time in museums to have overheard smart ruminations on these questions by obviously infrequent museumgoers. I’m no anti-information commissar — a few words about Puglia’s history and culture would help with Giacomelli’s picture — but we don’t need to be lectured on questions our own intelligence automatically generates, thank you very much.

  • In Light and Seeing Beauty
  • Museum of Photographic Arts, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park
  • Through Sunday, January 23, 2011. For additional information, call 619-238-7559 or visit mopa.org.

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