Time was that if you lived in St. Louis and wanted to see world-class contemporary photography outside the city's universities, you needed an Internet connection with plenty of bandwidth or a plane ticket. Enter Ellen Curlee, whose eponymous gallery concentrates exclusively on fine-art photography. Smart and sophisticated, Curlee has used her keen eye and vast knowledge of the art form to present St. Louis with the sort of high-caliber shows rarely seen in the nation's interior. Since opening the Ellen Curlee Gallery on Washington Avenue in 2005, Curlee has curated her exhibitions with an eye toward work that plumbs complicated family histories, commercialism and cultural constructions of sexuality and gender. Some of the artists she presents offer up images of ghostly beauty, such as Japanese-born Parisian photographer Kimiko Yoshida's "Marry Me!" series, which Curlee (along with Flatfile Galleries in Chicago) exhibited as part of the artist's 2005 U.S. debut. In other shows, like last winter's exhibition of British photographer Martin Parr's Martin Parr: Fashion Show
, Curlee delivers work with a decidedly lighter hand, presenting an insouciant challenge to our Western ideals of feminine beauty and male potency. Sometimes funny, sometimes serious, a trip to the Ellen Curlee Gallery open from 11 a.m. till 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (and till 9 p.m. on the first Friday of each month) is always challenging.