Art Beat // Pictures of an anniversary

A 15th-anniversary exhibition plays to the Weinstein Gallery’s strengths

EAST HARRIET — The Weinstein Gallery turned 15 this summer and the belated anniversary exhibition that opened Nov. 1 has as its guest of honor — who else? — Alec Soth.

Photographs from Soth’s recent “Broken Manual” series get one of three rooms in the East Harriet gallery all to themselves, which is just how the loners and outcasts who posed for Soth’s camera might prefer it.

“Broken Manual” sees the spirit of American individualism reflected through a cracked and clouded mirror. These are people and places on the margins: a Utah homestead built into a desert cliff face, a ramshackle houseboat that may have done time as a trawler, a lone figure standing ankle deep in the duff at the bottom of a wooded ravine. In that last image, the man, a Greek orthodox monk draped in a black cassock, is the photograph’s dark, mysterious focal point.

Soth’s photos are like that: extraordinarily detailed, exquisitely composed and, like a great first sentence of a novel, simultaneously drawing the viewer into a world and hinting at a larger story. The photographer is the key element, here; somehow Soth continues to find these end-of-the-dirt-road destinations, and somehow he makes the interesting strangers he finds there feel totally at ease in front of his camera.

Gallery owner Martin Weinstein played a small role in Soth’s remarkable rise to art stardom, so it makes sense that photographer gets a place of honor the anniversary party.

A decade ago, one of Weinstein’s daughters worked with Soth during an internship at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Soth’s former employer), and she convinced her dad to make a studio visit. This was just a few years before Soth’s triumph at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, which lit the fuse on his art career.

Photography is the gallery’s strong suit, and Soth is in good company.

A small section of prints titled “20th Century Masterworks of Photography” includes Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous black-and-white snapshot of a man leaping over a flooded street, photojournalist W. Eugene Smith’s picture of two grimy, war-weary soldiers for the cover of Life magazine and Nancy Rexroth’s “A Woman’s Bed.” The last is a deceptively simple-looking photograph of the corner of a bedroom, but Rexroth’s use of a low-tech Diana camera with its cheap plastic lens turns the scene liquid. It’s sensual. You enthusiasts of lomography who have rediscovered the Diana and its ilk, take note.

In another room is one of Robert Polidori’s fantastic large-format photos of Amman, Jordan, at least one of which has previously hung on the Weinstein Gallery’s walls. Polidori’s approximately 6-by-7-foot photograph is an image to sink into, capturing a teeming hillside neighborhood in mind-boggling detail. From the eroding foundations of the concrete apartment buildings to the rooftop laundry lines, it’s a neighborhood that seems to be both growing and decaying at once.

There’s also Helmut Newton’s photograph from 1975 of the model Lisa Taylor in a lightweight summer dress sitting on a couch, legs splayed and playing with her hair as she casts a predatory gaze on a passing man. It smolders, even on a gallery wall.

The list of famous photographers and well-known images could go on — and there’s more than photos to the exhibition, including prints by Wayne Thiebaud, painting and sculpture by Nicolas Africano and several African tribal pieces — but the work of Doug Rickard is particularly deserving of mention.

Rickard cruises the decaying urban cores and inner suburbs of American cities using Google’s Street View service. His virtual road trip eventually rolls through Detroit, where he spots three youths jaywalking in the wake of Google’s computer-operated, vehicle-mounted camera.

It’s a grainy image, torn from the computer screen, with crisp perspective lines described by the street and rows of light poles running down either sidewalk. As the three young men scamper off-screen, the one in the middle regards the camera — a high-tech interloper in a run-down commercial district lined with boarded-up shops.

“Fifteen Years” runs through Dec. 31 at the Weinstein Gallery, 908 W. 46th St. 822-1722.