CAMBRIDGE — "Public and Private: East Germany in Photographs by Ulrich Wüst" is the photographer's first US retrospective. So it's natural to look for similarities with the work of other, more familiar photographers. The fact that Wüst spent the first two decades of his career behind the Iron Curtain makes that looking all the more understandable. Obscure or little known in the West then, the context that formed Wüst artistically is vanished now.
The show, which runs through Jan. 3 at the MIT Museum and includes work from 1979-2015, consists of 84 photographs and more than 200 others printed in 10 leporellos. Other than two recent leporellos, from 2010 and 2012, all the work is in black and white.
A leporello is a small artist's book, folded in accordion fashion. Formally, they recall Ed Ruscha's photographic artist books of the '60s, like "Every Building on the Sunset Strip." One could easily imagine a Wüst leporello called "Every Building on the Alexanderplatz." There's that same sense of visual acceptance, though it's born of affection with Ruscha — and guardedness with Wüst. It's the difference between funky catch-as-catch-can and bland desolation.
To an American eye, Wüst variously recalls Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, and August Sander, while always remaining himself. That balance between influence and identity is difficult to maintain; the ability to do so is not least among the ways a gifted artist demonstrates just how gifted he is.
The affinity with Abbott is via her "Changing New York" photographs of the 1930s. Wüst offers a changing Berlin. Its alteration after reunification is one of Wüst's enduring subjects. Trained as an urban planner, he has an abiding feel for space and the arrangement of structures.
What may be most striking about Wüst's reunified Berlin is how little it differs in feel from East Berlin in the '80s. There's the same reined-in quality. That quality owes something to Wüst's chaste vision of things and slightly aloof sensibility.
Walker Evans liked to describe his own style as "lyrical documentary." Wüst practices clinical lyrical documentary — what's lyric in them is that precise and austere. These images offer a sense of being removed and then take it one step further. Growing up with the Stasi will have that effect on an artist. Wüst's photographs aren't hermetic, but for many years the world he photographed was. That very much comes through. So many of these pictures are a record of lives lived in parallel, if not in outright opposition, to the official version of things.
It's a tribute to the subtlety of Wüst's artistry that the authorities banned his work just once, a series called "Die Pracht der Macht (The Pomp of Power)," a deadpan documenting of monumental architecture. "If I had always focused on presenting my work in public, I would have had to stop working," Wüst has written. "My approach was to work for myself first." The result isn't so much art for art's sake as art for truth's sake. Not that there's anything didactic about Wüst's images. What makes so many of them so remarkable is their capacity to evoke a society dedicated to stamping out evocation: a place where exactitude and banality made the absence of thought and suppression of feeling a political ideal.
Inside, away from surveilling eyes, is a different story. Wüst's series "Notizen (Notes) 1984-1986" is very Lee Friedlander, with the latter's ability to combine formal inventiveness with a rigorously casual approach. Odd angles and a sense of interior jumble equal freedom. The sight of a portable television on a rug (with a nun on the screen!) or the view through a rainy windshield conveys an almost-disorienting sense of liberation.
A selection of Wüst portraits from 1989 of East German artists and writers shows the tension between lives lived one way within and a very different, imposed way without. They share a sense of cool yet humane scrutiny with August Sander's "People of the Twentieth Century." However inadvertently, they also look ahead to Martin Schoeller's up-close-and-impersonal portraiture.
The wonder of "Public and Private" is how diverse it is in subject matter — those portraits share wall space with palaces and tower blocks, Soviet Realist monuments and summer houses, windswept plazas and gravestones — yet how consistent in spirit. The best way to understand Wüst's images, perhaps, isn't through the work of other photographers but a poet. "One must have a mind of winter," Wallace Stevens writes in "The Snow Man," to see "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." Ulrich Wüst has a mind of winter, all right, and it comes with an eye.