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Master of color photography turns his lens on Cape Cod

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Joel Meyerowitz’s photograph of his daughter in “Ariel Meyerowitz.”
Joel Meyerowitz’s photograph of his daughter in “Ariel Meyerowitz.”

SOUTH HADLEY — It's only March, but what exhibition is going to have a better title this year than Joel Meyerowitz's "Fragile Paper Timeships"? It runs through May 29 at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.

The title comes from the text Meyerowitz wrote for his 1985 photo essay "A Summer's Day." He refers to his photographs as "these fragile paper timeships dusted with information, dense yet clear." "Dusted" is a perfect word. Few if any photographers handle color with such delicate fineness, as the 33 images at Mount Holyoke bear out again and again. He took them between 1979 and 1989.

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Meyerowitz began as a street photographer, using a Leica to capture urban life on the fly. That was in the '60s. By the mid-'70s, he'd taken to using an 8x10 view camera. View cameras are big and bulky. They also require longer exposure times. They're as conducive to street photography as RVs are to city traffic. What they offer instead is richness of detail. That richness is wonderfully suited to color, which Meyerowtiz had worked with from the beginning.

Color, still a rarity among serious photographers in the '60s, was becoming more common in the '70s. That was thanks in part to Meyerowitz's success with it. His book "Cape Light" (1979) was a critical and commercial success. The "Cape" in question is the one coterminous with Barnstable County. The combination of richness of detail and fineness of color found a worthy subject in and around Provincetown, where Meyerowitz had a house.

Most of the photographs in the show are of the Cape. There are a pair from North Carolina, one from Florida, and four taken in Pittsburgh. One of the Pittsburgh pictures shows carnival rides in the foreground, with a blurred train and the downtown skyline in the background. The combination of urbanism and open space nicely recapitulates the visual course of Meyerowitz's career, from tumult to serenity. Even better, the overall effect within the frame is of a hurdy-gurdy futurism: a weirdness that feels just right.

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The Cape brings out something special in Meyerowitz. Is it just that the light there is different, which it is — or that it's home? The three photographs of his daughter, Ariel, suggest the latter. She seems as much a part of the landscape as sand or surf does. In one, she stands on the beach at magic hour, her magenta top echoing the band of color where sky meets water. The sense of someone being just where she should be is almost giddy-making, except that the exactitude of stillness is so profound.

It's telling that Meyerowitz poses the subjects of the five portraits in the show in front of the water. That's where people on the Cape most naturally belong. If the gray-haired man in the portrait on the far right looks familiar, that's because he is. We're looking at a post-pugnacious Norman Mailer: an elder statesman in a tank top enjoying a sunny day. His face may be in shadow, but the rest of him isn't.

The show includes 10 images from Meyerowitz's "Bay/Sky" series, 1983-'85. They are a theme and variations. The theme is the unassuming sovereignty of the horizon line. The variations consist of elements one might expect — meadow, ocean, beach — and a pair one might not: a man in a boat.

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Meyerowitz likes to defeat expectations. "Early morning still life" shows a deck overlooking the ocean. There are some chairs and a cloth-covered table. It's set for a fancy breakfast: glasses, a vase of flowers, a carafe, a wine bottle (so let's hope it's brunch rather than breakfast — though in P-town, you never know).

The defeating of expectations has to do with light and color. The weather is overcast, so a Whistlerian gray (sky) and versions of brown (sand and deck) dominate. The only bits of color this master of color offers are the tablecloth, which lies somewhere between lilac and mauve, and the flowers, a narrow stab of green and purple. That's the thing about fragile paper timeships. You never know how much dusting there will be or what form it might take.

FRAGILE PAPER TIMESHIPS: Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz, 1979-1989

At Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Lower Lake Road, South Hadley, through May 29. 413-538-2245, www.mtholyoke.edu/artmuseum


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.