Forty years ago, I fell in love with my philosophy of art professor. He was in love, too–this tiny old man with his long messy white hair, his lovely crooked back, his deep cackly voice–with exactly the photographers now showing at the U-M Museum of Art. He was probably alive in the early 1900s when artists created the works in this exhibit, The Aesthetic Movement in America: Artists of the Photo-Secession.

My prof-crush started when I noticed how gently he caressed the photos in the textbook on his lap (he always lectured seated). Most prominent among his loves were Alfred Steiglitz and Edward Steichen, leaders of the photography-as-art crusade then, and both featured in this show. The third leader, Gertrude Kaesebier, wasn’t mentioned in our textbook–after all, it was the ’70s–but she and quite a few other women were members of the Pictorialists.

“Pictorialism was the first truly international photography movement,” the exhibit description says, “and its practitioners … sought to position photography as a legitimate aesthetic art form.” They withdrew from the dictates of art at the time by forming what they called the Photo-Secession. Together, these two forces promoted doing what other visual artists have always done: manipulating the medium. To prove that photographs were art rather than mere reproduction, these photographers used soft focus and different kinds of processing, touching up the photos with drawing and playing with light and materials to achieve painterly effects.

My favorite in the show is Kaesebier’s photo of the sculptor Auguste Rodin, known for The Kiss, The Thinker, and his ruinous relationship with his apprentice Camille Claudel. Kaesebier’s Portrait of Rodin portrays the then aged artist from the side in a room draped with what looks like walls of cloth–perhaps canvas falling in folds. His right hand, the blackest area of this light photo, barely reaches out, and charcoal-like marks lengthen and enhance its shadow. The gentleness, the pose, and the subject evoke a sense of awe. My professor would have spent three days on this one.

Rodin is again featured–sort of–in three remarkable photos Steichen made of his statue of the writer Honore de Balzac. These nighttime photos of the much-reviled sculpture were experiments, taking two nights, more than an hour of exposure each, and months of trying different plates and processing. Dark and haunting, the hulking shape is highlighted by the shifting moonlight. (Rodin loved them. “It is Christ walking in the wilderness,” he told Steichen. “Your photographs will make the world understand my Balzac.”)

Speaking of dark, most of the works are. Many seem grayish compared to the kind of photography we’re used to. They can seem dull from a distance, yet up close they are anything but. They are luscious, surprising, and historically avant-garde, worthy of my professor’s caresses from heaven. You can caress them–with your eyes only–until the exhibit closes March 5.