Do museums ever arrange paintings along time lines marking the progress of paint pigments? Have advances in arc welding or chisel design inspired retrospective surveys of sculpture? This sort of materialist emphasis comes naturally to curators and consumers of photography, a medium often identified with its mechanisms.

Keith Davis, a curator from Kansas City, Missouri, seems to follow this line of thought when he writes of “the inherently mechanistic nature of photography” in his catalog for the exhibit “An American Century of Photography–From Dry-Plate to Digital,” now showing at the Terra Museum of American Art. In his title Davis brackets this masterly survey with feats of technology, not measures of artistry. But he chronologically partitions his exhibit into four periods–starting in 1890, 1915, 1940, and 1965–that don’t signal any technical thresholds.

The landmarks suggested by the subtitle drop out of the picture, as Davis devotes more attention to aesthetic climates than emulsions or economics. Seeing history as a “vast and largely unknowable sequence of events,” he gravitates toward organic metaphors when looking at photography. He told me: “I see the history of photography as much more a product of evolutionary activity than revolutionary activity.” At the Terra’s opening, he likened his show to “a gene pool of possibilities,” which echos the “seed,” “organism,” and “ecology” imagery used by Museum of Modern Art curator John Szarkowski in his books The Photographer’s Eye (1966) and Photography Until Now (1989).

As director of the Hallmark Fine Arts Programs, Davis has assembled since 1979 more than 50 traveling shows and authored 11 catalogs and books related to Hallmark’s corporate collection. For this show he culled 253 photographs from a collection containing more than 2,500 images. His comprehensive essay–running over 125,000 words with 1,010 footnotes–is illustrated with 114 photos, while another 207 appear as plates, one per page.

The book’s layout is quite different from the exhibit’s. Facing pages suggest diptychs and twin themes. His penchant for expressions like “balance,” “tension,” and “union” takes visual form as he pairs photographs, and he often picks graphic images that comment on the medium’s political issues, like voyeurism. Nashville, a 1963 Lee Friedlander photo of a dark-eyed woman seen on a television set, is coupled with New York, a 1961 Garry Winogrand shot of a woman dressed in black catching the camera’s eye on a sidewalk. Another pairing alludes to the metaphysical side of photography’s mechanisms: a Kenneth Josephson photo of a black car and its snow “shadow”–made when the sun melted all the snow on the asphalt except for what was in the car’s shadow–evokes the natural mystique of image making and appears next to a Hiroshi Sugimoto print of a blank white theater screen that undermines our perceptions of motion pictures.

Unlike the catalog’s uniform format, the Terra Museum’s architectural constraints break up any neatly patterned encounter. Here the serpentine spine of Davis’s chronology straddles two buildings whose fused floors don’t match. A four-story space is shuffled into an eight-level labyrinth hardly conducive to a century-long cavalcade of photos. The longest uninterrupted wall holds 20 photographs, ranging from 1925 to 1935, that occasionally track with Davis’s book. Seventeen photos hang isolated from their historic or thematic peers. There are a dozen two-photo sequences and a dozen three-photo walls that approximate groupings in the catalog.

“The space of the Terra is, um, interestingly complex,” said Davis. “There are four different levels and getting from one to the next is unusual in terms of how we’re used to walking through museum spaces. The positive is that the spaces are intimate. I think they are actually wonderfully scaled for photography, at least for traditional kinds of photography. The relatively low ceilings, the very comfortable size of the spaces I think make for a very pleasant and conducive kind of interaction between the viewers and the pictures.” But a few viewers disagreed. “Path through exhibit too confusing,” complained Robert from Northbrook in the museum comment book.

“Within each of the chronological units we have thematic clusters where two prints are side by side for a deliberate reason,” said Davis. “Four pieces are together–again for a very specific reason. Those kinds of juxtapositions create many, many narratives, so in my mind there’s several ways to look at the show.

“The way the show’s structured I don’t believe to be at all heavy-handed, ” said Davis. Some viewers, however, saw it differently, writing such comments as “No rationale for grouping of works besides chronological” and “I agree!” Considering the layout of the Terra’s interior, plate tectonics, not evolution, may be a more apt analogy for the survey.

“An American Century of Photography–From Dry-Plate to Digital” is showing through March 30 at the Terra Museum of American Art, 666 N. Michigan. Hours are noon to 8 Tuesday, 10 to 5 Wednesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 Sunday. Suggested donation is $5. Davis will lecture on his exhibit Wednesday at noon. Admission is $15, $5 for students. Call 312-664-3939. –Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Campesinos” by Tina Moditti/ photo by Ralph Steiner/ “Powerhouse Mechanic” by Lewis Hine/ “Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation #99” by Aaron Siskind.