WHEN Diane Arbus (she pronounced it Deeyan) died in 1971, she joined a pantheon of distraught, creative women, including Sylvia Plath, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Frida Kahlo and Kay Sage, who all died prematurely. Like Mark Rothko a year before, she slit her wrists and overdosed on pills. Arbus’s suicide increased public awareness of her work, but it masked her delight at trying to capture quite what it means to be human.

Arbus started in 1946 as a stylist, working in close partnership with her husband Allan, photographing fashion advertisements for Russek’s, her father’s Fifth Avenue department store. Later the Arbuses branched out into editorial photography for fashion magazines. Their work, mostly done in their studio with large-format cameras, was competent, but lacked both the clarity and the compositional fireworks of a Richard Avedon or an Irving Penn.

A new show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Breuer gallery has been hung to allow the visitor to focus carefully on each photograph. Jeff Rosenheim, the freewheeling curator, presents the works without any thematic or chronological consistency, which means one has to focus on each print and develop one’s own narrative, seeking out what in every picture appealed to Arbus.

A useful approach is to note how the photographer’s technique, approach and subject matter developed. The earlier pictures were taken with hand-held cameras with 35mm film and available light. The camera was held at eye level, and promoted direct eye-to-eye contact.

In late 1956 and over the next two years, Arbus took classes with Lisette Model, known for her close-up, biting street caricatures. She pushed Arbus towards a more crisp, close-in and confrontational approach. By 1962, eschewing her earlier grainy style and looking for more definition, Arbus began using a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera with a larger square film format. It was held at waist-level, looking up to her subjects. Her images, sometimes made using a tripod and flash, became sharper and more tightly composed.

Early on, Arbus staked out places with a lot of people. Her initial pictures were simple, passing encounters. Often her subject would be confused about why she wanted to photograph them. Their querulous, hostile or annoyed faces recur in her work from the late 1950s. Arbus had a taste for whimsy—a night view of a drive-in screen showing a projected image of a bright sun shining through the clouds, or quirky film props, such as rocks on wheels, stored in a back lot at Disneyland.

…vamping for the camera

Arbus was 38 before she saw herself as a professional. She moved from depicting random incidents with strangers to seeking out visually interesting human tribes—twins and triplets, midgets, circus performers, nudists, the blind, transvestites, freaks and the mentally ill—by entering their worlds. Jack Dracula, a legendary tattoo man (pictured), was a favourite subject. She used her considerable intelligence, charm and an intense interest in others to get the poses she wanted. Her pictures, taken in bedrooms and backstage dressing rooms, are evidence of her ability to gain trust and acceptance from those whom society might find repellent, and who in turn distrusted society themselves.

While risqué at the time, her choice of subjects was not without precedent. Nearly a century before, Edgar Degas had painted inhabitants of his own demimonde: prostitutes, ballet dancers, jockeys, chanteuses. As with the early Impressionists Arbus’s work was met initially with disapproval; at her first show spit had to be wiped every day off the pictures. In this age of ever-present selfies, the novelty of street photography has faded, as has the shock value of tattoos, piercings, cross-dressing and gender reassignment. Viewers today are more open to Arbus’s images—and far less likely to spit.