With its "New Pictures" show opening today, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts launches a fresh era in its photography department.

The eight huge photos by Japanese-born Noriko Furunishi -- each more than 6 feet tall -- are composite color landscapes that the Los Angeles-based artist has Photoshopped together. Seductive images of ice, rock, water, roads and forest glades, they're executed so seamlessly that it's almost impossible to decipher what's up, down or sideways. Lacking horizon lines or the illusion of distance, they read more as abstractions inspired by landscape than as pictorial vistas.

Curator David Little discovered Furunishi's work early in 2005 at New York's Museum of Modern Art, where he was working then. He's eager to show it at the institute in part because her unconventional landscape imagery echoes spatial elements of traditional Japanese and Chinese scroll paintings like those in the museum's collection.

"She didn't want her work to be about Japanese identity, but she did want it to be something that doesn't re-create Western horizon lines," he said. "You really see that when you go from her work into the collection galleries."

Other elements of Furunishi's work signal broader change at the museum, including their scale, color, technological origins and recent date -- all were made within the past four years. While the MIA has shown large-format color images, most recently photos by Minnesota-based Alec Soth, its reputation rests primarily on classic 19th- and early 20th-century shots, especially smaller-scale, black-and-white landscapes, portraits, documentary and journalistic images. Film-based and darkroom-printed, those works represent an era that is fast fading into photographic history.

New definitions

"I chose the title 'New Pictures,' because the very definition of what a photograph is now is so different from what it was before Photoshop and new technologies," said Little, who joined the department a year ago this month. "Photography is no longer just linked to things that happened in reality, and the disconnect from the journalistic definition of photography is greater today."

This show is the first of a semiannual series that Little is launching under the "New Pictures" title. It will showcase innovative photography by "emerging artists" from around the world. That doesn't necessarily mean young talents -- Furunishi is 43 -- but individuals who are not well known. "The idea is really to bring people to Minneapolis that no one has heard of but who are doing great work," said Little.

Before joining the Minneapolis museum he worked at MOMA and the Whitney Museum, where he was director of education. Minneapolis offers more curatorial freedom than does Manhattan, he said.

"I love the fact that we can take risks here," he said. "There is a kind of pressure in New York and you can, as a curator, get stuck in a place where you hedge your bets. There's no need to hedge your bets here."

In picking artists for the series, he looks at magazines, checks online, goes to art fairs, talks to colleagues and photographers, gets recommendations. "I want to avoid the art world filter" as much as possible, he said. "I want to see everything myself as opposed to having someone tell me what they've seen. You always have to avoid the curatorial herd or the artists' herd, look in out-of-the-way places, and maintain the strength of your viewpoint. That can be challenging because everyone loves consensus, especially funders."

The series will have a website that includes video clips of the artists, essays by Little and others and an interactive blog. The museum is also launching a new lecture series named after the late photographer Arnold Newman, whose foundation funded it. It begins with a talk by Paul Graham, an influential British-born photographer known especially for color images documenting the "troubles" in Northern Ireland. (6:30 p.m. Oct. 1, $5).

"The stories I want to tell are stories that haven't been told in photography," Little said. "If you look at photography in the 1970s and forward, you see the same photographers over and over again in museum collections throughout the U.S. I'm highly suspicious about the ways that photography has codified and established its history so quickly. I don't think anyone could agree about the history of painting or sculpture in the 1980s and '90s, but there is a high consensus in photography. I think we have an opportunity to not just follow, but to lead and to pull out some photographers who have been overlooked."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431