One of the most recent pieces in the 40-year retrospective of Michael Snow's photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is "Paris de jugement Le and/or State of the Arts," a photograph of three nude women standing in front of Paul Cezanne's "The Bathers," which is itself an image of a group of nude women.

 

The 2003 image contrasts the bodies of photographed women against those painted in 1906 from Cezanne's imagination.

"They are poised in a way – it seems to me – that while he's definitely interested in the erotic aspect of that, he doesn't want to say that. So there is no erotic aspect," said Snow. "Cezanne's bathers are peculiar by the fact that they are so bad."

The original "Bathers," owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art,  is hung on the museum's second floor. Snow, who acknowledges Cezanne as an otherwise great painter, used a printed reproduction of "The Bathers" for his photograph.

The first major exhibition of Snow's photographic work, called "Michael Snow: Photo-Centric," features his first experiment with the medium – a 1962 series of portraits of a cardboard silhouette of a woman placed randomly on busy city sidewalks ("Walking Woman") – up to those nudes facing down the Modernist master. For four decades he has manipulated pictures to explore ways to warp the viewer's expectations of photography, and that of their own perception.

You have to get on top of "In Medias Res" (1998) – an aerial photograph of a drawing room exactly the size of the area rug photographed – to see it. You have to get underneath "Crouch, Leap, Land" (1970) to understand what the three horizontal plates suspended by wires represent. In order to "get" the four hanging transparencies printed with the life-size image of a couple making love in a bedroom – "Powers of Two" (2003) – you have to walk behind it.

"Photographs can have physical manifestations. Each one of these works is a different kind of physical manifestation," said Snow. "Experiencing the work is partly experiencing the thing as a physical thing."

Photography is just one of Snow's interests, and not the one he is best known for. His breakout 1967 film, "Wavelength," revered as the godfather of avant-garde film, is the crown of his prolific and highly influential filmmaking career.

He studied design at the Ontario College of Art, and has often worked in sculpture and painting. The 84-year-old is also an active free-jazz pianist, with several recordings to his name.

For the launch of the "Photo-Centric," Snow will perform improvised piano duets with musician and composer Thollem McDonas.

"At first it was New Orleans jazz. I was very moved by Louis Armstrong's Hot Five, and Jelly Roll Morton," said Snow, who was a professional pianist during his teenage years. "I think the way my music developed into totally free improvisation was implied in New Orleans jazz."

Snow said his music career does not inform his photography and film work. While one is freely improvised in the moment, his films and photographs are often rigorously conceived and executed to very specific ends.