CAMBRIDGE — Photographing a location is different from photographing a place. Location is geographical; it’s about where. Place is emotional; it’s about the intersection of where and who and even why. That distinction informs “Photographing Places: The Photographers of Places Journal, 1987-2009.” It runs at the MIT Museum through Aug. 16.
Places Journal, which continues to function as a website (placesjournal.org), was a print publication from 1983-2009. It harked back to the early days of photography, when publishing technology didn’t allow for photographs to be set with type on a printing press, so photographs would be bound in separately. The idea behind Places Journal was to offer a comparable emphasis on image over text. What had once been a mechanical necessity was now an editorial choice. Following a brief introduction, a portfolio of photographs on some aspect of landscape and the built environment would follow. The only additional text would be captions.
It’s appropriate that “Photographing Places” should be exhibited at the MIT Museum, since Places Journal was jointly founded by faculty members at MIT and the University of California Berkeley.
There are 21 photographers in the show and nearly 70 images. In both style and substance, they demonstrate a happily vigorous diversity. It’s safe to say that Places Journal was never a magazine with a house style. Why should it have been? “Places,” in this context, is emphatically plural.
Some of those places are as familiar as Fitchburg. Cervin Robinson’s 1996 photograph of Moran Square is a study in vertical clutter, its array of light poles and steeple and statue at once amusing and bracing. Think of it as a grammar of ascent. Some of the places are as unfamiliar as you’d expect somewhere half a world away to be. It’s a safe assumption that Kyrgyzstan would have bus shelters. Who’d think, though, that they’d look as visually ebullient as the pair here that Margaret Morton photographed in 2006?
Morton has one other photograph in the show, of an Ohio roadside memorial to a soldier killed in Iraq. Most of the contributors to “Photographing Places” devote their work to a specific locale or theme. As with Morton, though, there’s occasionally a striking contrast. Another example would be Timothy Hursley. The distance between Pahrump, Nev., and Auburn, Ala., is slightly less than 2,000 miles. The distance between the two bordellos Hursley photographed in the former and the low-income housing in the latter is a whole lot greater.
Sometimes the contrast comes within the frame. One of Maria Cox’s three coolly elegant black-and-white photographs of golf courses is from Rome, and shows a ruined aqueduct in the distance! Sometimes the contrast is owing to the viewer. Mentioning oil sands fields in northern Alberta conjures up images of environmental degradation; Curtis Hamilton’s four photographs, from 2009, are almost serene in appearance. There’s a different sort of disjunction in David T. Hanson’s views of strip mining in Colstrip, Mont. The chemical fouling of a waste pond gives it the texture and hue of a Color Field painting.
The best-known photographer in the show is Joel Sternfeld. He has two large color images of New York’s High Line. He took them in 2000, nearly a decade before that abandoned rail line became a wildly successful urban park. We forget at our peril that place, as a concept, can owe as much to time as space.
New York figures most often in the show. Besides Sternfeld on the High Line, there are Brian Rose and Edward Fausty on changes on the Lower East Side; Kate Milford on Brooklyn; John Bartelstone on the muscular decrepitude of the Brooklyn Navy Yard; and Elizabeth Felicella on the uneasiness of boundaries between public and private space.
Some of the sites have figured in headlines. Examples would be Edward Grazda’s work from Kabul and Lisa Silvestri’s three photographs from post-Katrina New Orleans. Stepping outside of time is the aim of the people whose sustainable houses in England and Wales David Spero photographed. These structures look like a cross between Bilbo Baggins’s Bag End and the domicile where Michael Caine’s character lives in “Children of Men.”
Of particular interest to Globe readers will be four selections from Robert Campbell’s 2002 photo essay, “Front Row Seats.” Yes, that Robert Campbell: this paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic. Objective commentary on a colleague’s work is impossible, let alone that of a colleague I’ve known and admired for more than 30 years. So let’s just say that Bob’s pictures are as good as his prose and leave it at that.