ANDOVER — “Photographers Among Us” is so spectacularly rich in content it hardly matters how muddled the show is conceptually. It runs through July 31 at the Addison Gallery of American Art, as does a smaller photography exhibition that’s also quite choice, “Gun Country.”
The Addison has a remarkable photography collection, which both exhibitions showcase. How remarkable? “Photographers Among Us’ includes three of the most famous photographs of the 20th century: Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” Arthur Rothstein’s “Father and Son in a Dust Storm,” and Robert Capa’s “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman.” There are also 16 images from what’s likely the most important photography book of the second half of the last century, Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” along with 81 (!) contact sheets documenting the travels that produced the book.
Other photographers in the show include such bold-face names as Timothy O’Sullivan, Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, W. Eugene Smith, Richard Avedon. The Abbotts, in particular — five images from “Changing New York,” printed large, nearly 16 inches by 20 inches, and hung in a row — are a knockout.
Pictures in the show range in date from 1863, the O’Sullivan, to a 1991 William Christenberry of an Alabama juke joint. In other words, “Photographers Among Us” could work as a pretty impressive gapped history of American photography. But it isn’t, and that’s where the muddle comes in.
The idea behind “Photographers Among Us” is to follow the evolution of documentary photography. Does documentary photography mean photojournalism (Capa, Smith, Lucien Aignier, Gordon Parks)? the Farm Security Administration (Evans, Lange, Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn)? social critics and crusaders (like Riis and Hine)? even a portraitist (Avedon)? Yes to all. It also includes photographers who don’t fit any of those categories, like Abbott, Frank, Chistenberry, Bill Owens, Danny Lyon, and Wendy Ewald.
What about “among”? It can mean “where the action is” — war photography, say — but also daily life in East Bay suburbia (Owens) or Chicago motorcycle riders and Texas convicts (both Lyon). That’s an awful lot of territory for one preposition to cover. Ditto “us”: Besides subjects previously mentioned, there are concentration-camp survivors and war refugees (Aron Cypen Lubitsh), early-20th-century child laborers and immigrants (Hine), the mid-’70s power elite (Avedon, from his “The Family” photo essay). Inelastic definitions limit meaning. Overly elastic ones, as here, preclude it.
The show might be best understood as a series of photo essays or series, hung in roughly chronological or thematic order. All the war photos, other than the Capa, are placed together. A grim continuity collapses the century that divides John Reekie’s “A Burial Party on the Battle-field of Cold Harbor, April 1865” from Dick Durrance II’s “Body bags outside graves registration tent, Camp Evans, January 1968.”
That Durrance photograph, and nine others in the show, are from his series “Where War Lives: A Photographic Journal of Vietnam.” “Gun Country” includes seven more from that series. Also appearing in both shows are Abbott, Aignier, Lyon, O’Sullivan, and Owens. There are three dozen photographs in all, as well as a Thomas Nast engraving, screenprints from Andy Warhol and Vito Acconci, a Carroll Dunham lithograph, and six commemorative plates from Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari.
Commemorative plates? Mandel and Zakari, Watertown residents, have put images of the post-Marathon bombing lockdown of that town on the sort of souvenir stoneware found in many households in the early 20th century. The plates work on multiple levels, most of them unsettling. They’re particularly apt here, with the way they connect contemporary events to a sense of larger historical continuity. Sage Sohier’s photo of a weary Revolutionary War re-enactor does that, too, and no less wittily.
The key word, unfortunately, is continuity. Firearms have been around as long as America has. “Gun Country” nicely, which is also to say grimly, conveys the extent and variety of that history. There are soldiers (Durrance’s up-close and ballistic “Firing range” is truly startling), hunters, police, prison guards, kids playing with toy guns, people striking a pose, and at least one murder victim. His name is Robert F. Kennedy. No gun is visible in Harry Benson’s news photo. None needs to be.
A thread runs throughout the images: a consistent casualness on the part of the subjects and their relationship to guns. That casualness is what’s most American about our national relationship to weaponry. Guns are just there — or, rather, here — and as much a part of the American imagination as the pursuit of happiness. For many, they are a requirement of the other. The most telling image in “Gun Country” may be the one from David Levinthal’s series “The Wild West.” It shows a gunslinger in shadow. Six-shooter on hip, Stetson on head, he stands backlit and framed in a doorway. John Wayne should appear so heroic. Look more closely: It’s a toy action figure. John Updike once had a character observe “that, in America, a man is a failed boy.” Not with a gun he isn’t. He becomes a different kind of failure.
PHOTOGRAPHERS AMONG US
At Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 180 Main St., Andover, through July 31. 978-749-4015, addison.andover.eduMark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.