NOBODY REALLY WANTS to document the rich, I thought, standing in the middle of the crowded gallery among the work of many of Seattle's best photographers. From the evidence at Seattle Art Museum, these artists had been spending a lot of time driving east and south, seeking out authentic Washington strangeness to document.

The show is hung fairly densely, with most photographers represented by a dozen or so images, but certain frames stand out from the pack, easily lending themselves to tighter focus. Among them are Alice Wheeler's off-kilter image of her mother with a black eye; Erika Langley's photo of a Lusty Lady dancer with her wig off, looking (other than her glasses) like a figure from the Dutch Renaissance; Kristin Capp's black and white photo of a Soap Lake boy playing on his stoop in his underwear; and Andrew Miksys' portrait of a bingo parlor volunteer -- an aged woman in red, smirking and dryly raising a plucked and painted eyebrow as she's caught by the camera.

Glenn Rudolph has a knack for capturing a moment; you get the idea that he's either very lucky, or else takes a hundred photos for every one he shows, winnowing them down until he finds the perfectly mysterious image. His photos, set among working class people in rural Washington, show charged, almost indescribable scenes: Either something incredibly significant is going on, or pretty much nothing at all is happening. A big guy with his shirt off walks toward a moving pickup truck (where the photographer is sitting); he maybe has blood on his chest; he seems wound up. In another photo, a woman, smoking, wearing flip-flops and no pants (on her way back from a lake swim?), looks out over a valley from behind a broken roadside barricade; apples and broken cardboard crates are scattered around the roadside. A truck carrying apples has crashed, clearly; nothing else about the photo is clear.

Alan Berner also shows semi-photojournalistic work. His image of business burghers applauding as a fake Mount Rainier erupts to open the SuperMall of Auburn is priceless. Robert Lyons' photographs of rodeos in Ellensburg and Omak are quite a departure for viewers used to his images of Africa. The best picture he shows depicts the walkway behind the stands, where a white wood wall is capturing the shadows of the excited, cowboy-hatted spectators above. In a classic modernist composition, the shadows would be all you'd see, tightly cropped. The genius of Lyons' composition is the way he opens the frame, letting you see part of the activity in the stands and, behind the wall, the odd juxtaposition of an American Legion hall and a huge inflatable Budweiser bottle on the horizon.

Andrew Miksys is the biggest surprise of the show, because his subject -- bingo players -- would seem such an obvious exercise in pathos. Instead of presenting every cliché you might imagine, Miksys comes away with a series of heartbreaking, exacting portraits. The photographer, judging by his titles, has made an in-depth survey of Seattle area parlors; here are photos from Wallingford, White Center, Ballard, Tukwila, West Seattle, and Everett. Besides the aforementioned bingo worker in red (a red pin on her top reading "Don't Yell at Me I'm a Volunteer"), we have a handsome woman all in white, so well put-together you don't notice at first that her white coat is a cheap nylon jacket with snaps -- she's more perfect than Barbara Bush. Miksys uses his flash to set his subjects apart from their dingy surroundings. A typical composition sets his colorful subjects against blurry backdrops, with few other players in sight. A young couple in Everett, arms around each other, show off their mullets; she looks stoned. Lines of fluorescent lights converge over their heads, making them look like the subjects of a religious painting.

Within this not overly large gallery are amazing, everyday sights: records made by observers who are very good at what they do. The only wrong note is my vague sense that the photographers are, in the main, too concerned with finding something really strange, really other to look at. This is when Alice Wheeler's photographs, always full of sentiment though rarely sentimental, really pay off in this installation. Wheeler's subjects are her friends, her family, people in her scene. Unlike Nan Goldin, with whom she shares some themes, and unlike some of the best photographers in this show, Wheeler never makes you feel like a voyeur. That's a real gift.

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