Glenn Rudolph James Harris Gallery

309A Third Ave S, 903-6220

Through May 8.

For Robert Hughes, the venerable loose cannon of art criticism, there is a level on which photography will never compete with painting. In a recent Guardian article, he wrote, about the paintings of Lucian Freud, that every inch of the canvas, "[built] up from oily mud," seems to have been fought for and won. This, to Hughes, represents a kind of artistic engagement that "represents an order of experience totally different from the relatively weightless coming-into-sight of a photographic image."

Only Hughes could have put it so neatly, and be so infuriatingly spot-on. Although there is plenty of great photography and plenty of terrible painting (with every terrible inch terribly, awfully fought for), they are still different breeds of perceptual experience, in a way that makes photography seem frequently too facile. Dave Hickey, another critic not known for hedging, suggested his exhaustion with current trends in a recent interview, saying, "What do you do with an art world in which the normative work of art is a giant C-print of three Germans standing beside a mailbox. Stop it, please."

To admit that both men are in some degree right suggests that there is something wrong with where photography seems to be going--a problem of single-dimensionness that could perhaps use a dose of painting as a corrective. I happen to think this is true. But flatness is something that Glenn Rudolph's photographs don't suffer from.

Rudolph has been toiling for years in relative obscurity, which seems at least on a thematic level to suit him, since his subjects are about as marginal as you can get without being invisible. They are, for the most part, the people who live right at the edge of what we confidently call civilization: young couples in housing developments carved out of farmland, homeless nomads who prefer rural areas to sidewalks, teenagers who transport themselves out of their ordinary lives with medieval role-playing.

Rudolph's large-scale prints are hardly weightless; most of them have a substance as considered and fought-for as a painting. They have an inevitability that is anything but accidental, in which every object seems equally natural to the subjects and a product of the artist's will, creating the sense that the artist has not simply caught something, but made it. And the photographs are masterfully composed: Rudolph shoots frequently outdoors, often with an unconventional-sized lens that gives the images a pinhole effect (dark around the edges, zooming us toward what's at the center) and uses not only hills and valleys to guide one's eyes precisely to what he wants us to see, but telephone wires and railroad bridges and outdoor lamps. The effect is vertiginous, swooping, actively intimate. The figures, often placed in the center of the photograph and sometimes blurred almost beyond seeing, are moments of stillness in a landscape that moves.

The figures are shot without a shred of nostalgia, even though many of the communities Rudolph has turned his attention to are disappearing (the landscape, as it happens, is actually moving); neither is there a cold anthropologic glare. Rudolph gives a rich texture to the people he photographs; as with Diane Arbus' works, the photograph is the result of a relationship, with a temporal feel rather than a single invasive instant. In fact, Rudolph's Maria and Johnny, with Johnny's height and unfocused stare and helpless stoop, and the way Maria grasps him by the hand like a child, has echoes of Arbus' Jewish Giant.

Rudolph's subjects lead lives of unimaginable detail: the happy couple with the dog-leash fetish, the fantasy-world Lord Daemon, all black robes and seriousness. (Those that seem more like stereotypes, like the suburban couple posed with their dog at the edge of a knife-sharp artificial lagoon, are more squarely on the side of the area's encroachers than the oddballs who inhabit its murkier zones, and who really interest the artist.)

But some of his most arresting images have no people in them at all: In Milepost 5.6, a train comes roaring out of a hillside in a complex image that encompasses three kinds of light: the hazy vague sunlight in the distance, the direct, clarifying light close by, and the cool, palpable shade, immediate and startling. The efforts of photography have less to do with piling up paint than with a rigorous amount of seeing; in the right hands, it has a weight as formidable as any painting.