When Dennis Weller, co-curator of the N.C. Museum of Art’s current photography show, Is Seeing Believing?, introduced the exhibition to some early visitors, he called it “dessert” after the big meal of the Ansel Adams show. If this is dessert, then Weller and co-curator Janis Goodman have put together a complex and subtly flavored one–several layers with fillings and frostings. There are fewer than three dozen works in the show, so the serving is small, but it is satisfying nonetheless.

There are basically two kinds of photography. The kind we encounter more often captures a simulacrum of the actual world–it attempts to see and reproduce the world as we know it, as Adams did. However, over the last 40 years or so, a new kind of photography has become increasingly important. Photography’s technical processes are put in service not of seeing the world as it exists without artistic intervention, but of recording imagined scenes and characters. That is, the medium that has been linked since its inception with the documentation of “reality,” is now being used to make pictures of things that do not exist in the real world. Is Seeing Believing? includes striking examples of this type of work by a number of its important practitioners, many of whom, not surprisingly, have also worked in performance, film and video, or advertising.

In other words, this is photography acting like painting–or fantasy movie-making, like Ang Lee’s recent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But where the painter, even when working from life, can draw easily on his imagination, and place things unseen in the painting wherever he likes, the photographer must have the things in position in order to record them on film. Thus what we see in this exhibition are the end results of some very elaborate make-believe games. Before a photograph can be realized, its content must be created, and all of the artists here are as technically proficient in the crafting of costume and scene as they are at lighting and shooting the image.

The most important and best known of all the artists practicing the new photography is surely Cindy Sherman, who is represented here by three large works. Sherman is a chameleon, a chimera and an alchemical genius. She works in series, with each photograph showing a single woman in a different character. The photographs are all of her–her body is the physical substrate for each persona she creates–but if you didn’t know it you’d never know it. Could this pig-faced female feeding in the glistening muck (“Untitled #140”) be the same woman who stands so regally in the scene Sherman modeled on an old master painting? Although I still admire the small black and white “film stills” with which Sherman first made her mark, these huge (approximately 7 x 4 feet) color pictures based on “important” paintings from centuries past are much more evolved pieces, the work of a mature artist. The viewer can, as numerous critics have done, draw from her series inferences about Sherman’s thinking concerning female identity as represented by both self and others. Many writers have ascribed to her positions that she herself has not articulated, but examining the works over the years, it becomes clear that Sherman continually probes matters of power, hierarchy and identity in art and life. Looking at the three photographs here, it becomes clear that Sherman works from a visual logic marvelously impervious to verbal deconstruction.

The same may be said for many of the pieces in the exhibition. Sandy Skoglund’s work, with its super-saturated color and bizarre scenes filled with out-of-place objects or creatures, only sounds ridiculous when described. Yet when you look at it, it is astringently absurd and fabulistic. When you visit the exhibition, you will see one of the fox sculptures that Skoglund made–or had made–to place in the setting of “Fox Games,” in which red foxes overrun the tables in a gray restaurant. This will give you some sense of the lengths these artists must go to in creating these images. As co-curator Goodman says, “these artists have created little industries around themselves.”

Of the other works in the show, I particularly liked those by the Dutch artist Teun Hocks, who paints in oils over his large-scale toned silver prints. The imagery makes you think of Magritte, but Hocks is more droll. Two of these three pictures are cleverly hung to play off pieces in the museum’s permanent collection. There are also three works by the &233;migr&233; Russian artists Valeriy Gerlovin and Rimma Gerlovina, including the stunning “Bark” in which Gerlovina is arranged in a form like a boat with an oar–but which also looks very like the hammer and sickle symbol of the former Soviet Union.

The images that lingered longest in my mind, however, were those by one of the youngest artists in the exhibition, British-born Janieta Eyre. Like Sherman, Eyre dresses herself in costumes and creates settings for her characters, but her work is very different from the older artist’s. In two of the pieces here, Eyre has employed double exposures to create doppelgangers–she has twinned herself. She also uses shallow space, optical patterns, medieval references and some strange symbology. The pictures are a little morbid, maybe, but direct and innocent of pretentiousness in their pretense. In this exhibition, they are analogous to the streak of bitter chocolate that saves a dessert from its own overwhelming richness. EndBlock