THE FIRST THING to do when you enter this exhibition is forget about its source. The collection's owner is Hallmark Cards, Inc, the nation's premier provider of syrupy greeting cards, but it is a serious, unflinching, and very broad collection that explores emotions excluded from most Hallmark products.

This is a collection with both breadth -- the show, with some 250 prints, was culled from Hallmark's 4,000 piece photo collection -- and quality. Though many illustrious photographers are alotted single images, those images are generally both successful as stand-alone works and as representatives of their makers' body of work.

Large narratives wind through these images, reflecting the various aims to which photography has been applied, both large and small: documenting the city and the human face, depicting impersonal masses and the most personal of moments, attempting absolute realism and grand fiction. A work at the beginning of the show perhaps captures its sweep best: Abelardo Morell's Camera Obscura Image of Manhattan View Looking South in Large Room (1996). Morell, by covering the windows of the large room and leaving only a small hole for light to come through, has transformed the space into a huge camera obscura, a lensless camera which, due to its position in the middle of New York, captures a broad swath of midtown. The city enters the room, wedding the two subjects.

In this show we find big chunks of the history of America, from the westward expansion as seen by Robert Adams to wars documented by Joe Rosenthal (World War II), David Douglas Duncan (Korea), and Larry Burrows (Vietnam). Politicians and entertainers flit through the crowd, the people appear as faceless masses or with great particularity.

A tension arises between the photographers' goals of form and composition and their implicit aim (with art-for-art's-sake exceptions) to document reality. The grand Old Master composition of Burrows' image of soldiers attending to a wounded comrade adds to the picture, but detracts by its artificiality from the very real event it captures. Rosenthal's image of Marines hoisting a flag at Iwo Jima, the basis for the famous sculpture, looks altogether too posed, hung near news photographer Weegee's dirty realism.

The show has few notable omissions, and these are mostly in the contemporary section at the end, where reputations remain contested. Larry Clark but not Nan Goldin? Tina Barney but not Bill Owens? These lapses are toss-ups -- who knows which of these photographers we will find interesting years later, when this collection is back in Kansas City?

The most serious omission runs underneath many of these pictures like an underground stream. The snapshot, taken by everyone all the time in America, appears only at the very beginning and the very end of the show. It is everywhere present in its absence, however. The snapshot's goal -- memorializing the present for the future -- is in many cases identical with those of the professional photographers, and its offhand but predictable approach peeps in here and there.

Near the very beginning of the exhibit, seven of Henry N. Cady's late-19th-century experiments with a small camera are posted in one frame. His subject matter -- his family -- is unremarkable, and his experiments with telephoto lenses and rooftop camera angles are sloppy, but the tiny prints are surprisingly charming. In the last room of the exhibit is a group of images by contemporary photographers documenting their own family, friends, or neighborhoods with much more technical sophistication but the exact same goal, which is a kind of third-person autobiography. Looking across the room at each other are Tina Barney's rich girls making a mess in their parents' dining room; Sally Mann's daughters playing dress-up outside by a beat-up pickup truck whose license plate reads "GORJUS;" Larry Sultan's aged parents in their living room; and a grandfather and granddaughter -- two Buffalo neighbors of Milton Rogovin -- seen in three photos over 18 years, one growing from infancy to adulthood, the other descending into infirmity.

These photos have more pathos than the wounded soldier in Vietnam, and more soul than Stieglitz's portraits of Georgia O'Keeffe. While photography waged its battles to capture the outside world, both exotic and commonplace, this particular commonplace was explored only by the amateur. The show's ending, where photographers return to this subject, is a happy one.

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