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Photography review

Met Breuer exhibit shows Diane Arbus emerging

Diane Arbus in the Met Breuer exhibit were taken from 1956-62, prior to her 1965 breakthrough.
Diane Arbus in the Met Breuer exhibit were taken from 1956-62, prior to her 1965 breakthrough. (The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC)

NEW YORK — Is Diane Arbus back? The arrival of Arthur Lubow’s biography and “diane arbus: in the beginning,” which runs at the Met Breuer through Nov. 27, make for a thwacking one-two punch.

Coming back assumes having left, and as a cultural presence Arbus never went away. Ever since 1965, when three of her photographs were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art — and every morning a staffer would arrive early to wipe away the spit museumgoers had left on the glass covering them — Arbus has been one of those rare artists whose name is a kind of shorthand.

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Even people who’ve never seen her photographs recognize her name and its associations. Freakish, grotesque, unnervingly outré? Oh, right, like something out of Diane Arbus.

It’s not so much that Arbus changed how we see the world as how we allow ourselves to see it. Underbelly and id are no less part of society for being less visible. Outcasts and outsiders become their own norm — and with Arbus as ambassador, ours, too. She witnesses without ever judging.

The Met Breuer’s very impressive exhibition lets us see the emergence of that Arbus. Yes, there’s a thematic familiarity among these 100 or so photographs taken between 1956 and 1962, two-thirds of them not previously shown. We find transvestites and sideshow performers and troll-like children and monstrous-looking matrons. But what informs these images is an unsettled searching and, for lack of a better term, inchoate wonder that one doesn’t associate with her mature work. We see Diane Arbus becoming “Diane Arbus.”

Diane Nemerov was born in 1923. Her family was wealthy and cultivated. Her older brother, Howard, would later become US poet laureate. She married at 18. Her husband, Allan Arbus, gave her her first camera.

After World War II, the Arbuses worked together as a fashion photography team. In the show’s excellent catalog, Met photography curator Jeff L. Rosenheim describes how she was art director/stylist, and he photographer/technician. She struck off on her own photographically in 1956. That’s where “diane arbus: in the beginning” comes in.

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The hanging of the show is a triumph of ingenious simplicity. Narrow temporary floor-to-ceiling panels make an imposing space manageable. Each panel has a photograph at eye level on the front and back, giving each image a discrete area. The panels break up the space without interrupting a sense of overall flow. The arrangement also makes it easy to zig and zag. Although there were many viewers on a recent Friday morning — not prime museum time, but Arbus still draws crowds — the show never felt congested.

A further inducement to zigging and zagging is the photographs’ not being arranged by chronology or theme. This ostensible lack of organization makes sense. It mirrors the experience of being on the street or midway. So many of these pictures were taken on the street, with its sense of possibility and (for Arbus) mystery and even menace. The street for her wasn’t about energy — as it was, say, for Garry Winogrand. It was about entropy. Arbus’s street was a kind of free-form version of the weirdness and shock and voyeurism that would coalesce a half century later as reality TV.

Almost all the pictures have an introverted, indrawn quality. Even the ones that are posed or shot straight on feel sideways somehow. It’s telling that the images are often slightly blurred. These photos are distanced as the later, famous ones are not. You sense a barrier that’s not yet been breached — although the simple fact of approaching the barrier and peeking over it amounts to a subversive act.

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The show includes a gallery with work by Arbus predecessors and contemporaries. Among the former are a Walker Evans subway photograph, one of Helen Levitt’s views of city children at play, an August Sander portrait. Contemporaries include Winogrand, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Leon Levinstein.

You can see Arbus’s affinities with each. You also see how she stands apart: in her single-mindedness, her matter-of-fact darkness, her seismograph-like sensitivity to the gravitational pull of the marginal. “For me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture,” she once said. “And more complicated.” Complicatedness, even more than oddity, was what drew her.

Arbus’s artistic apartness is very much evident at the end of the show, in a selection from her celebrated portfolio “A box of ten photographs.” It includes some of her most famous mature work, such as “Identical twins, Roselle, N.J.” and “A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C.,” both from 1966. What 1956-62 pictures make plain is her movement toward that apartness.

Color became respectable in art photography during the ’70s. In 1971, Arbus committed suicide. Had she lived, would she have switched from black and white? The idea of Diane Arbus photographs in color sounds preposterous — in part, because they could have been so off-putting. Black and white lowers the temperature. It distances subject matter and make it seem slightly abstract. Color does the opposite. Maybe the idea of such a switch isn’t so unlikely. Levitt did it, and so did a near-contemporary, the street photographer Joel Meyerowitz.

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If Arbus had switched, her later work might have been kin to that in Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” There’s the same combination of provocative subject matter and judgment waived. But there’s a key difference. Goldin was part of the New York downtown world she documents in these nearly 700 images. Arbus, no matter how deeply she might connect with her subjects — connection is the ultimate engagement with complicatedness — was on the outside looking in. She was as isolated as her subjects were. Goldin presents a community of like-minded, like-behaving people, one she very much belongs to. Where classic Arbus is predicated on complicity, “Ballad” offers an insider’s — a partcipant’s — intimacy.

“The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (the title comes from “The Threepenny Opera”) appeared as a book in 1986. Goldin created and refined and kept adding to the project as a slide show in the years preceding publication. It’s as a slide show, lasting about 50 minutes, that it’s being shown at the Museum of Modern Art, through Feb. 12.

Goldin, who grew up in Lexington and graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, was born in 1953. Her matter-of-fact frankness updates Arbus’s matter-of-fact darkness. Much of what she shows is shocking: people out clubbing, having sex, shooting up. There’s a general sense of bleariness, even brutality. Yet Goldin also shows pregnancy, child-rearing, Monopoly games. Mundane activities can offer a sense of intimacy, too. Either way, there’s a casualness that’s as alien to Arbus’s sensibility as Goldin’s lurid colors are.

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The slide show has a soundtrack, and it’s as varied — and effective — as the images: from Dean Martin to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Sylvester and the Hot Band. Best of all is the cheery incongruity and perfect title of Petula Clark singing “Downtown.” Goldin turns it into a bohemian rhapsody.

212-708-9400, www.moma.org

diane arbus: in the beginning

At Met Breuer, 945 Madison Ave., New York, through Nov. 27. 212-731-1675, www.metmuseum.org/visit/met-breuer

NAN GOLDIN: THE BALLAD OF SEXUAL DEPENDENCY

At Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 St., New York, through Feb. 12.


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.