Candida Höfer's scintillating exhibition at Arcadia University of four large color photographs - that's correct, just four - presents a Philadelphia-themed peek into a considerably more expansive and endlessly debatable subject, the status of photography in contemporary art.
Michael Fried, an art critic and historian who teaches at Johns Hopkins University, believes that photography, especially the kind practiced by Höfer, has become the leading edge of current art, in part because it has assumed some of the prerogatives of painting regarding the relationship between image and viewer.
Citing the work of such photographers as Canadian Jeff Wall (who is included in the "Cezanne and Beyond" exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), and German artists such as Höfer, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, and Thomas Demand, Fried argues persuasively for photography's new prominence in a recent book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before.
With the Höfer exhibition as context, Fried will discuss the issues developed at considerable length in his book at Arcadia at 4 p.m. April 11 in Stiteler auditorium in Murphy Hall.
A visit to the show beforehand, in the nearby Spruance Art Center, is bound to make his arguments more accessible than they are in his prose. Fried is an academic, not a popularizer.
When, in the late 1970s, photographers began to make supersize prints intended to hang on walls like paintings, they also altered the way viewers interacted with these images. Large photographs like Höfer's - those at Arcadia are about six by eight feet - usually incorporate so much detail that viewers feel drawn into the environments portrayed.
Small photographs exist outside the viewer's space, but monumental prints able to command whole walls put viewers in a more ambiguous position. On one hand they are clearly outside the frame, like spectators looking through a window, but as Höfer's pictures demonstrate, one can also feel as if one were standing just behind the photographer as the shutter releases.
One other element makes large-scale photographs like Höfer's both compelling and complex in terms of meaning. Often the reality they purport to depict - in Höfer's pictures, empty rooms - is manipulated in some way to impart a theatrical dimension.
This can seem like an anomaly, because Höfer's photographs are absolutely true to life in their particulars. Nothing has been added or removed from the rooms she documents.
However, because she relies exclusively on available light, she must make long exposures. These intensify natural illumination and reflections, and can also bleach some colors.
So while the photos are essentially documentary, they also look brighter than life and slightly idealized. They do not represent what you would see if you went to these rooms and stood where she stood.
The four photographs in the Arcadia show depict portions of four Philadelphia architectural landmarks - the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (historic building), the Fisher Library at the University of Pennsylvania, the Masonic Temple, and the synagogue of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.
Höfer made these pictures in 2007, the year after the Institute of Contemporary Art here presented a traveling exhibition of her work, "The Architecture of Absence." (She also photographed City Hall, Girard College, the Academy of Music, and Eastern State Penitentiary.)
For the Philadelphia series, her first serial project in an American city, Höfer followed her customary routine. She photographed rooms in historic, architecturally significant buildings with a 4-by-5 view camera, on color negative film. The rooms are uninhabited, yet there is usually a sense that people use them regularly.
The key ingredient that imparts an electric sense of heightened reality is light, pervasive in the way it articulates form, animates surface, and picks out detail. Her exposures are so long that views out windows are entirely bleached out. They also create exaggerated reflections while erasing shadows.
To contemplate these striking images is to realize that you would never see these rooms with such clarity and presence if you were standing in them, and yet to also understand that these pictures are theatrical in a positive way, like human emotions exposed nakedly on the stage.
In short, Höfer's photographs register in the brain as much like paintings as like neutral photographic documents. By positioning her camera to maximize spatial depth, she emphasizes the architecture's volume as well as its color harmonies.
This is especially noticeable in the view of the Masonic Temple, whose lush jade-turquoise interior features facing rows of upholstered benches similar to those in the British House of Commons.
The moods of the four interiors contrast; the temple is perhaps the most conventionally beautiful, the academy the most ornate, the Fisher library the most severely functional, and the synagogue, Frank Lloyd Wright's last commission, the most imposing, like a giant cavern or ancient temple.
Yet such fidelity of description, compositional rigor, and evocative mood aren't really the bottom line. Ultimately one comes away from the exhibition thinking about how these photographs differ conceptually and empirically from those made before the advent of large-scale formats.
On the surface, they can appear to be almost artless; how much emotion can one expect from empty rooms? Yet they can inspire a depth of contemplation usually associated with paintings.
In the early days of photography, people speculated whether this new mechanical way of recording nature would eventually replace painting. As we know, it didn't.
But now photography has developed a parallel track in which the most ambitious efforts, like Höfer's, are able to deliver a comparable visual and psychological response.