Here’s a telescope–a time-travel telescope. Set it for eleven years ago, and focus it on senior curator Carole McNamara gazing at Whistler’s painting, Sea and Rain, and wondering how the U-M Museum of Art could best use its sketchy oil. From that simple moment evolved “The Lens of Impressionism,” UMMA’s new exhibit that boasts loans of major and rare artworks, scholarship that’s actually interesting if not riveting, and an engrossing story of how a whirligig of forces shaped photography and painting on the Normandy coast in the mid-nineteenth century.

It’s a fascinating look at the beginning of photography and Impressionism and how each influenced the other. While UMMA has focused the lenses so we can see how social, technological, artistic, commercial, and industrial changes all played into one another, the thrill of the exhibit is to stand in front of these ninety-some works.

Before you are some of the first en plein air photographs–some with negatives, which is, McNamara says, a rare and “totally fabulous” thing. You can be inches away from originals of the massive cliffs at Dieppe and then move a few feet to the left to see pre-Impressionist paintings of the same scene, imitating the same tiny-slice-of-time attitude. Turn to the right to contrast them with earlier, more “finished” paintings.

Stand in the center of the Taubman Gallery for similar panoramas of skyscapes, waves, landforms, seascapes–even tourists themselves. It all makes perfect sense: Yes, of course the railroad opened the coast to the masses, which spawned the tourist trade in this gorgeous region, which attracted visual artists, often working on the same scenes.

“They were looking at each other’s work,” McNamara says, and cherry-picking from the other’s advantages–photography’s informality and painting’s editing capabilities, for example. Painters fiercely carried that informality banner into Impressionism. Manet’s On the Beach, for instance, depicts a bather posed almost like an Odalisque on the sand. It could hardly be less formal or more scandalous to the Parisian art sensibility. Photographers, who couldn’t edit unwanted things out of the photos, did paint on their negatives or put two together, sometimes not even from the same location.

Back then, no one knew how these sometimes competing, sometimes cooperative influences would pan out, much as we don’t know what results will emerge from today’s media. But thanks to the scholarship and a decade of dogged work by McNamara and many others at UMMA, wheedling rare works from the Bibliotheque nationale de France, the Musee d’Orsay, the Louvre, and museums all over the United States, we’ve got a focal point trained on the nascence of Impressionism.

Truthfully? The lure of Impressionists is why I came. Three Monets? Including The Sea at Le Havre, over which I drooled? They didn’t disappoint. But I stayed for the scholarship–the narrative, the extras. See the exhibit, which continues through January 3, on a guided tour if you can–there are several this month, beginning November 4–just for the stories.