There it was, a psycho-sexual-political migraine set off by the title, "Woman as Photographer," appended to an international show of 125 images by and about women at the Mpls Photo Center through April 17.

Though women have been snapping photos pretty much since the medium was invented 175 years ago, the title implies that gals are anthropological curiosities, gender-defined freaks of nature, or poseurs masquerading "as" something alien to their true nature or profession. Plus its retro-condescension set my teeth on edge. Would anyone today mount an exhibition called "Man as Photographer"? Or, pick your poison: "Gay, Jew, Negro as Photographer." Probably not, but even after decades of consciousness-raising and workforce participation, women can still be anatomized -- and marginalized -- by their "otherness."

If women are going to be categorized as exotic aliens, why not revive the ancient "Woman as Goddess" trope? Surely that shoe fits.

Even the exhibit's subtitle, "Documenting Life as a Woman," suggests that when women pick up cameras they're self-absorbed navel-gazers taking pictures of the universal sisterhood. Or, more benignly, maybe it just promises a peep into what it might be like to live "Life as a Woman."

As opposed, maybe, to living life as a frog?

Celebrating women's lives

Setting aside my own snappish pique, it must be said that "Woman as Photographer" celebrates the notion that women's lives, talents, experiences are somehow distinct from those of the other 49 percent of the population. This is a well-intentioned effort ably curated by Christina Chang, an assistant curator at the University of Minnesota's Weisman Art Museum. Included are black-and-white and color images from throughout the United States and as far afield as Israel, Germany, England, Spain, France, Switzerland and more.

Without the labels, it would be virtually impossible to guess the photographers' gender or country of origin. Women feature in most of the images, however, and there's something very affirmative, even uplifting, about encountering so many smart, keenly observed, often beautiful pictures by and about females. I was especially taken by Véronique Khammisouk's "Perdre son Temps," an artfully lit photo of a moody teenager clutching a huge clock, so French in its symbolism. Likewise, Andrea Land's "Elizabeth" is a memorably haunting image of a fragile girl with a woman's head and a gaunt, childlike body adrift on a huge bed washed by pale light. I also very much liked Jenn Ackerman's "Exposed: Betty," in which a handsome, auburn-haired over-70-something strikes a bathing beauty pose worthy of World War II pinup Betty Grable.

At least one image, "Elizabeth and Barbara" by Lindsay Paczkowski of Minneapolis, seems to take the subtitle literally. In it, an attractive couple in their 30s pose on a porch dressed in black and wearing colorfully geometric ties. Leaning back with knees cocked in a typically "masculine" way, they appear at first glance to be guys. Maybe they're two women living life as men? Or not. In any case, the photo speaks to a widespread contemporary interest in the visual signifiers (ties, haircuts, posture) that serve to differentiate genders.

Several images document relationships among women of various ages, ethnicities and locales. The gnarled hands and pose of "Benita and Teresita (Galicia, Spain)," snuggled close to a bonfire in Sandra Garrido Campos' photo, suggest a lifetime of hard work and mutual commitment. Maria de la Iglesia of Madrid, Spain, records three stern "Friends," wizened and resigned, perched on the doorstep of a picturesque building. Likewise, Lemia Monet Bodden of New York contrasts an elderly couple, "Junior and Carol," with their youthful wedding photo. Closer to home, Minneapolis photographer Amy Anderson depicts teens "Corrine and Tabby," showing off the matching wrist tattoos that signal their bond.

A few pictures offer windows onto experiences unique to women: Kathy P. Leistner's image of a very pregnant belly poignantly embraced by a little girl; Elli Rader's portrait of an elegant woman whose open dress reveals a mastectomy scar; Bette Globus Goodman's picture of "Kirsten," a young woman in chic sunglasses intently monitoring a machine pumping milk from her breasts.

Humor and humanity

Humor is not neglected. In "Laundry," Gudrun Lock of Minneapolis offers a droll, surely Photoshopped image of women's legs in high heels protruding from a clothes dryer. Sara Paige Green of St. Paul pictures a woman's legs and hands sandwiched between sofa cushions from her "Woman as Object" series. And then there's Paula Winkler's hilariously scary "Internet Encounter #12" which shows a flabby nude guy, tattooed and sporting an alarming array of genital piercings, clutching a baroque urn of oversexualized fake flowers.

There also are portraits of poor South African and Indian laborers, a stylish Israeli mother nursing an infant, schoolgirls, surgery scars, showgirls, clotheslines, hospital rooms, anorexics, precision roller-skaters, Barbie, beauty queens, soldiers, grandparents with grandchildren, Asian tourists, lusty young lovers, scared and lonely kids, some symbolic stuff (doll head abandoned by rail line; bleached tree trunk labeled "Resilience"), and even an uninhabited pink motel in South Dakota and a surrealistic baby-blue office building in Cardiff, Wales.

Given the show's scope and ambition, "Family of Woman" would have been an appropriate title. Like its 1955 predecessor, "Family of Man" (from an era when "man" was presumed to encompass all humanity), this show has the sociological range of a National Geographic photo essay and plenty of aesthetic high points. As a portrait of women today, it affirms once again the vitality and abundant talent of the fair sex. But we knew that.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431