The oddest duck in this exhibition is Diane Arbus, whose images occupy that one-of-a-kind space I think of as “Diane’s Photo Booth,” the sealed chamber of her scrutiny — asphyxiating, darksome, inquisitorial. She wasn’t by any stretch a street photographer, and she wasn’t much concerned with public issues, but she said something that speaks for the desire of all these photographers to uncover the revelatory: “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” The human beings in her squirmy images puzzle over us as much as we puzzle over them. Her picture of a woman with a crawly mole on her face reveals an incipient terror so many of us carry unacknowledged. And her overall-tattooed Marked Man and dyspeptic Mad Man from Massachusetts and back-alley Uncle Sam all behold and evaluate us while we return the favor.
Straight photography vacuums up appearances. It swears to what’s apparent. Arbus liked to remind us that there are secrets everywhere, especially when we think we’re seeing something exposed. The heroic photos Ernest Withers made of black sanitation strikers in Memphis, of a woman brandishing her newly acquired voting card, and of Dr. King being stopped by police at Medgar Evers’s funeral — these carry somber moral authority. They’re the most politically eloquent images in the show, and yet, appearances being what they are, it was learned much later that from 1968 to 1971 Withers worked as an FBI informant, snitching for J. Edgar Hoover on civil rights leaders, including Dr. King. ■
Streetwise: Masters of ’60s Photography is on view at the Museum of Photographic Arts until May 15. 1649 El Prado, 619-238-7559, mopa.org.