The Frye's focus is on women photographers

Four large exhibitions this month and next in three locations comprise a comprehensive survey of photography by women. If you see only one of the shows, you'll experience a small cross-section of an art form at which women have long excelled. If you see all four shows, you'll get a world-class view of photography past and present done by women.

Thanks to the Frye Art Museum's current festival of exhibits, lectures and panel discussions, "Celebrating Women in the Arts," visitors see turn-of-the-century Seattle photography by "Pioneer Women Photographers" and Part I of a juried show, "Contemporary Northwest Women Photographers." Part II is on Level 2 at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. G. Gibson Gallery has chimed in with the most select survey of all, "The Female Aim," which combines big-name heavy hitters from 20th-century photography with top-flight younger artists.

Start at the Frye with "Pioneer Women Photographers." Myra Albert Wiggins' 1891 shot of William Merritt Chase's class at the Art Students League in New York is the earliest. Significantly, all 15 students surrounding the American impressionist master are women. This sets the tone for more than 100 images of women throughout four venues.

While Wiggins is interesting with her soft-focus pictorialist platinum prints of children, gardens, mountain landscapes, and waterlilies, she's really closer to illustrating Victorian literature with her set-up stagings of people in interiors.

More modern are the nude outdoor scenes taken by Imogen Cunningham of her husband, Roi Partridge, on Mount Rainier. Despite her successful portrait studio on First Hill (near where the Frye stands today), Cunningham was drummed out of town by 1928 because of the now-quaint, then-shocking views of Partridge. Eventually rediscovered and idolized by feminist art historians of the 1970s, here we get to see some of her tamer work, too.

Ella McBride's still lifes and portraits are too indebted to painting, but a few have a sad, poetic quality, including another portrait of Partridge, this time decorously handsome in heavy tweeds. McBride's own male nude of 1922 resembles a crouching figure on a Greek vase.

The Frye's education department organized the juried survey, selected by dealers Marita Holdaway and Barbara Shaiman and artist Ann Pallesen. In an unprofessional mix-up, Pallesen's photos are included. She should have withdrawn either as a juror or an entering artist.

That aside, there are considerable riches divided between the 32 prints at the Frye and the 59 at the convention center. The jurors allowed plenty of latitude, which means a wide range of quality. Viewers will find their favorites, however, and, after a quick once-over, ignore the rest. For example, Susan Robb's "Eggspore" at the Frye is a huge, beautiful color print that is messy and abstract, possibly a blow-up of microscopic organic matter.

Other standouts in color include Carolyn Krieg's "Fugue" of three classical Venus heads, Winifred Westergard's fond portrait of two little girls in a mobile-home park, and Caroline Planque's "Yvette L.," a senior citizen seated in her kitchen with a detestable miniature dog on her lap.

Many of the images are witty or bizarre. Don't miss Erin Shafkind's hilarious topless accordionist performing in a field of cows.

Far more interesting than the numerous tourist photographs are strange and dreamy images by Ann Hughes ("Hawaii Five-O Wave"), Stephanie Costa ("Self-Portrait"), Marianne McCoy ("Antoinette") and Irene Kuniyuki ("Infinity"). These artists alter the medium and push it closer to fiction than documentary.

There are plenty of male and female nudes here, too, light years away from the pioneer women's dainty daring. Julie McMakin's topless tattoo boy in front of a blue sequined curtain is very Seattle now, but Clare McLean's buff Brazilian boxers in tight shorts are also worth a closer look.

At G. Gibson, giants of the field like Diane Arbus, Linda Connor, Ruth Bernhard, Lisette Model and Dorothea Lange share wall space with brilliant newcomers Carrie Mae Weems, Carol Sawyer and Susan Seibert.

It's good to see veteran Seattle photo-

grapher Marsha Burns in such esteemed company. Her classic 1978 portrait of the graphic designer Ellen Ziegler holds up well.

This show has the most consistent level of quality and, with only 18 images, is the smallest. Truly for both connoisseurs and those wishing to educate themselves about the best in a very crowded and exciting field, "The Female Aim" demonstrates the extraordinary range of interests of women photographers.

Exhibit reviews

"Pioneer Women Photographers," Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle, through March 2, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday (206-622-9250).

"Contemporary Northwest Women Photographers: Part I," Frye Art Museum, through Feb. 23.

"Contemporary Northwest Women Photographers: Part II," Washington State Convention and Trade Center, 800 Convention Place, Seattle, throught March 28, variable hours (206-694-5107).

"The Female Aim," G. Gibson Gallery, 514 E. Pike St., Seattle, through Feb. 28, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Friday (206-587-4033).