Performing for the Photo

A UA modern dance professor's impressive art collection is displayed in a great show at the Center for Creative Photography

Jo Ann Callis is not a photographer who simply records the world as it goes by.

Instead, the California artist creates fantastical worlds of her own, putting people in "sets" she's sculpted or painted, and bathing them in light. In one of her so-called "fabricated photographs," Callis turned an ordinary room into a stage by draping it with theatrical golden curtains. And in the middle, in the spotlight, she placed a young woman who is unexpectedly upside down.

Not surprisingly, Callis named this startling 1985 work "Performance."

That photo is a centerpiece of an engaging exhibition now at the Center for Creative Photography, and even inspired its name, "Performance: Contemporary Photography from the Douglas Nielsen Collection."

UA modern dance professor Nielsen has been collecting art almost as long as he's been dancing, beginning in the 1970s when he got his first professional job with a dance company in New York. One of his early acquisitions, a large-scale untitled work by Charles Hovland, is an elusive performance in itself. The photographer propped an old-fashioned typewriter inside a blue car door and set it against a backdrop of Keith Haring-like scrawls.

The show has some 140 works, which most of the time are crammed into Nielsen's Ice House loft downtown. Curated by the center's brand-new curator Joshua Chuang, the exhibition is an edgy, eclectic mix of contemporary work, some by big names.

Diane Arbus photographed an eerie "Headless Man" (1962) in what looks like an executioner's chair. In a 1997 self-portrait, Nan Goldin captured herself looking pensively out the window of a moving train. Annie Leibovitz's 1992 portrait of photographer Cindy Sherman is a guessing game: nine lookalike women stand in a row, all of them with short dark hair and dressed in white tops and black pants. Only one is the real Cindy Sherman.

Laurie Simmons, the avant-garde New York photographer who's the mother of TV phenom Lena Dunham, creator of "Girls," makes surreal images mixing tiny objects and women's bodies. In Simmons's 1992 "Walking and Lying Objects" series, a naked woman seen only from the waist down is thrust inside a book, inserted into a globe and enclosed by a dollhouse.

Nielsen is a lifelong performer and choreographer, and like many other works in his collection, Simmons's mini-dramas are staged. Manipulated, invented and choreographed, the show's images "make us aware of the mediated nature of photography itself," as curator Chuang notes in a gallery text. Even the street photos, like Richard Renaldi's lovely shot of a young African-American woman glimpsed on a plaza in Newark, he notes, remind of us of the Shakespearean maxim "all the world's a stage."

And at this Thursday's formal opening of the exhibition, following a talk by Jo Ann Callis, Nielsen will turn the galleries into another kind of stage. Thirty student dancers and eight student cellists will perform among the photos on the wall, echoing and responding to the images. Dressed in black and white like Leibovitz's nine putative Cindy Shermans, the dancers will move through the rooms performing solos, duets and group dances. The audience, Nielsen says, is invited to "perform" as well, by moving through and between the dancers and the art.