If you've got a spare hour between now and Dec. 30, you owe it to yourself to take in the stunning photography show, "Women of Vision," at the Cranbrook Institute of Science. The show closes just before the New Year.

"Women of Vision" features work by 11 National Geographic photographers, all women, organized as part of the magazine's 125th anniversary celebrations last year in Washington, D.C.

Like all the best photography from the iconic magazine, the images at Cranbrook — blown up to heroic size — practically define photographic clarity and beauty, with dozens of pictures that will leave visitors shaking their heads, wondering how in the world the photographer got that shot.

Interestingly, the lion's share of these pictures are of people, a reflection of the magazine's evolution over the past 40 years from exotic wildlife and exotic Third World locales and people to hard-hitting journalism on subjects ranging from contemporary slavery to an up-close look at the lives of fundamentalist Mormons.

"When I came to the magazine in 1975," says Jodi Cobb, who was on staff for 35 years, "we had a great editor, Bill Garrett, who was determined to drag the magazine kicking and screaming into the 20th century. That's when the groundbreaking work in social issues and human-condition stories burst onto the scene. It was a great, glorious time."

The magazine's never looked back.

A case in point in this exhibit is Cobb's 2003 story on the slave trade, with disturbingly beautiful images of women carting bricks on their heads, and Indian sex workers whose faces bespeak a dignified stoicism.

The range of subjects dazzles. There's Kitra Cahana's remarkably intimate documentation of student life at a Texas high school, where she embedded for a full year for a cover story titled "Teenage Brain." Or take Lynn Johnson's "Return to Zambia," with its portrait of a man's face distorted by monkey pox — a photograph that, never mind its disturbing subject, is still artistically beautiful.

Not all the work here deals in portraiture, however. Beverly Joubert documents animal life, both gorgeous and cruel, on the African savannah for a story titled "Lessons of the Hunt." And in a complete departure from the rest of the show, Diane Cook presents a series of urban, architectural photos, with subjects ranging from New York's High Line park to up-high pictures of densely packed Chicago skyscrapers at night.

Each photographer gets her own small "gallery," which gives this exhibition a pleasingly intimate feel. At the center is an audiovisual display in which one of National Geographic's photo editors discusses how and why she picked a specific image out of dozens — an interesting peek into the world of magazine design.

Cranbrook is the show's third stop — after Washington and Charlotte, North Carolina — on a national tour sponsored by PNC Bank.

"We wanted to be the first to host the show in the Midwest," says regional president for PNC Financial Services Group Ric DeVore, "ahead of those guys in another state on Lake Michigan."

After Bloomfield Hills, "Women of Vision" travels to Atlanta, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.

If it seems a bit odd for a science museum to host a photo show heavy on human portraits, Institute director Michael Stafford dismisses that.

"Actually," says Stafford, who did his academic work in anthropology, "we're a natural-history museum. And natural history encompasses the cultural, human side of our world as well."

And thank heavens for that. To miss this show would be a shame. Beauty this keen comes along rarely.

'Women of Vision'

Through Dec. 30

Cranbrook Institute of Science, 39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills

10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.; 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. Fri. and Sat.; noon - 4 p.m. Sun.

Admission (till 5 p.m): $13 adults, $9.50 seniors & kids 2-12 (members free)

Friday and Saturday after 5 p.m.: $6.50 adults, $5.50 seniors and kids 2-12; free after 5 p.m. first Friday of every month

(248) 645-3200

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