Before Minneapolis' Warehouse District got gentrified with sports emporiums, purpose-built lofts and chic restaurants, it was a working-class neighborhood of rough bars, light industry and windswept streets lined with chilly warehouses where artists built studios out of sweat equity and dreams. A recent tour of the Mpls Photo Center at 2400 N. 2nd St. was a blast from those early days when creative energy seemed to crackle from every drafty building.

A hybrid organization for all things photographic, MPC rents out equipment and studio space, stages professional workshops and kids' classes, offers lectures and discussions for the general public, and this month launched a quarterly exhibition program. The center occupies two floors of a handsome old brick building on an icy cul de sac well outside the charmed circle of urban revival; its rough-hewn quality is part of its appeal. Once you're buzzed in and have climbed the raw wood stairs to the second floor, you'll find a lot of pretty good photos lining the brick hallways and gallery corridor.

David Little, photo curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, served as guest curator for the first exhibit, a portrait show. Picked from more than 1,200 entries representing 33 U.S. states and four other countries (Canada, England, Sweden and Australia), the 84 photos are on view through Feb. 14. Made mostly within the past decade, they are an eclectic lot in color and black-and-white, ranging in size from postcard to poster. Both studio-posed and snapshot style, they focus on topics political and nonpolitical, in urban or rural settings, in styles that are atmospheric, romantic, documentary and otherwise. The variety testifies to the show's expansive goal of simply showcasing the best of what's out there.

Little has looked at thousands of photos during his career in Minneapolis and previously at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but he insists he brought "no preconceptions" to his selection. He just screened for "practiced skill," an understanding of the medium's history, and the ability to "communicate complex emotions and thoughts to a broader audience."

Tradition and experimentation

Some images are steeped in the black-and-white tradition. Laura Crosby's overlapping profiles of five women and Doug Knutson's reverential image of the worn face of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, for example, rely on conventions of pose and lighting going back a century or more. Other pictures subtly violate tradition as Vermont artist Todd Lockwood does in his 2007 image of one "Dug Nap," a bald, bespectacled black man whose downcast eyes are invisible but who radiates tension through bulging forehead veins.

The play of light matters in many portraits, especially "Traveler, Hanoi," by California photographer Luke Woods, whose monkish subject sits at the edge of a tent of light in a makeshift Vietnamese pavilion. Light also halos the subjects in "Conjoined," a color image of two girls in a film or photo studio apparently posing as Victorian-era freak-show geishas conjoined at the shoulder. Or perhaps they really are conjoined; the image is curiously ambiguous.

There are also strange moments caught by keen eyes. Note especially the sullen looking guy in Stetson and sunglasses reading Field and Stream whom James Rowan of Tennessee spied in a lawn chair under a clothesline from which dangles a taxidermied deer head beside a lonesome road somewhere in America. Scary. And "The Man Who Shot Weegee," by Britain's Bill Jackson, records a plump couple in a Victorian-style study surrounded by books, bric-a-brac and a passel of taxidermied birds and furry critters in bell jars and vitrines. All that clutter is arrayed under the watchful eye of a photographer, presumably Weegee, photographed with camera to eye.

Portraits often gain potency when the camera makes eye contact with the subject. Such is the case with "It's a Matter of Perspective, Mr. President," in which Lydia Panas of Pennsylvania shows two boys about 9 years old fresh from a swim and peering straight into the lens, the sturdy freckled one with the determined gaze of perhaps a future Marine, and his thinner friend already seeming a little vulnerable and lost. Shot close up in the age-old manner of military portraits, the image may be a mother's protest against militarism. Or not.

Likewise, Minnesota photographer Chad Houle delivers a sly message of gay machismo in "Nate and Tim," which portrays two beefy outdoorsmen with a collie in an autumnal landscape. In a more experimental mode, Twin Cities photographer Linda Brooks amplifies the psychological impact of "Kate 17" by writing the subject's thoughts and comments onto her large color portrait.

With images that range from a grinning baby to a girl in a Scottish sheep pen, a prom amid dinosaurs, a police officer in SWAT suit, and a close-up of the right eye of local artist Scott Seekins, the show offers plenty of enticements for photo fans to brave the ice.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431