Amid the plethora of pixelated images flooding the planet, it's a treat to come across masterpieces of classic chemical photography that express the ineffable quality of photographs as handcrafted objects.
Some music aficionados believe analog recordings are richer and more nuanced than the digital ones that have supplanted them. I think the same is true for photographic prints; digital picture-making may be more convenient, but I detect more art in the older method.
If you don't mind a bit of driving, two exhibitions from the past make the point splendidly. One is "French Twist" at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington; the other is "Shared Vision" at the Princeton University Art Museum.
Each show is drawn from a distinguished private collection, and each focuses on the 20th century. Famous names and images abound, but that's not why these shows are so appealing.
First, the work in each is for the most part top-quality and important historically. Second, each show develops a seductive mood that elevates the total viewing experience beyond a sequence of unrelated parts.
"French Twist" is the more specifically thematic of the two. Drawn from the collection of Judith G. Hochberg and Michael P. Mattis, it describes life in Paris and the city's visual texture during the modernist period, from about 1910 to 1940.
Because the photographers are all well-known, the exhibition feels instantly familiar. One begins with Eugène Atget's eerily depopulated urban vistas, proceeds through Brassaï's intimate peeping into Parisian cafe life and its demimonde, and discovers the refined compositional tactics of Ilse Bing, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Andre Kertész.
Dora Maar, better known as Picasso's companion, and Man Ray contribute mildly surrreal and experimental images, as a way of exposing the avant-garde edge to French photography during the period.
What is curious, as you might have noticed, is that some of the photographers who created what became the popular visual impression of Paris during the 1920s and '30s were not French.
Brassaï and Kertész were Hungarian, Bing was German, Man Ray was born in Philadelphia, and Maar (née Markovi?) grew up in Argentina.
Yet these expatriates absorbed French culture thoroughly; at the time, France was the epicenter of modernist invention.
In terms of numbers, Brassaï, Bing, Cartier-Bresson, and Atget dominate this exhibition, which is installed in thematic sections. These four photographers account for two-thirds of the 100 vintage prints.
Yet "French Twist" isn't so much about the achievements of individuals as it is an attempt to recreate the zeitgeist of an era and a city. In that, it succeeds.
"Shared Vision" is a different animal, a cross-section through 20th-century photography that emphasizes the contributions of acknowledged masters and more contemporary artists, often with pictures that have become icons of the medium.
The exhibition is drawn from the collection of Sondra Gilman and her second husband, Celso Gonzalez-Falla. Gilman is a famous name in photography collecting. Over several decades beginning around 1974, the now-defunct Gilman Paper Co. assembled an exceptional collection that was eventually acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005.
Sondra Gilman started that collection when her late first husband, Charles Gilman Jr., known as Chris, and his brother Howard were running the company; the brothers supported her efforts. After Chris' death at 51 in 1982, Howard consolidated his corporate ownership and, guided by curator Pierre Apraxine, enlarged the collection; he died in 1997.
Having divested herself of her interest in the company, Sondra continued with her own collecting. After she married Gonzalez-Falla in 1986, they became collecting partners, concentrating on the last century. Historically, they have extended the reach of the corporate collection, which came to favor the 19th century.
Also a traveling show, "Shared Vision" features more than 130 vintage prints. Such prints appeal because they incorporate not only the photographer's vision and thinking but evidence of his or her hand. No machine or artificial intelligence intervenes.
Among 20th-century masters, it might be easier to list who isn't included in this selection than who is. The show reflects the collectors' aesthetic sensitivity in the way so many prints express a dimension of ambiguity, alternative interpretation, or even mystery.
Often the most memorable photographs are those that do not, or cannot, resolve completely. Images such as The Drummer by Loretta Lux and Bill Brandt's elongated partial nude Belgravia, London, exert a fascination that can't always be satisfactorily analyzed or explained.
"Shared Vision" is full of such photographs, which is why it's such an engrossing experience. It's not a show to glide through, but one to savor, piece by piece.
It also serves well as an abbreviated survey of what photographers have achieved in the 20th century. Where "French Twist" is a moment in time in a storied city, "Shared Vision" is an extended meditation on how the medium has evolved.