The faces we wear in public are carefully rehearsed: pretty but not too inviting, tough but not too threatening. We know we’re being looked at. So it might seem odd to portray taking people’s pictures in public as “spying,” as the National Gallery of Art has done. These photographers, including Walker Evans and Bruce Davidson, aren’t exactly Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.

But the moments captured by their cameras are often unexpectedly off-balance—moments when the personality breaks through the persona. I Spy opens with a terrific shot from Evans’s series of photos taken in Bridgeport, Connecticut, during one hour of one day in June 1941: A louche, rangy kid in a sweater vest swings toward the camera, his arms held loosely away from his sides like a dancer in rehearsal, his expression incredulous and somewhat challenging. Every angle is akimbo, everything a little off.

This boy’s wariness is one of the show’s themes, especially in the earlier photographs. Evans catches a woman who seems to be tilting her hat over her face to ward him off. Two women seem to be humoring him, while an older man seems censorious: “What’s all this about, young man?” you can almost hear him asking. The subjects don’t seem interested in having their pictures taken; they’re very pre-reality television. They seem to feel that Evans has somehow invaded their privacy, even though they’re out in public. Evans’s series of “Subway Portraits” used a concealed camera, and here he captured the way we look away from one another when confined in close quarters with strangers. The averted glance of the city dweller crosses class borders, as a lady in a ritzy hat and a stolid babushka type stonily gaze past each other, self-possessed.

If this show is to be believed, when we think no one’s looking, our faces fall into skeptical, determined expressions. Harry Callahan made a series of concealed-camera portraits in 1950s Chicago, closeups of women “lost in thought.” He caught one girl looking like a Renoir, with cupid’s-bow lips and softly downcast eyes, and another who just needs bigger earrings to star in a Madonna video circa “Lucky Star.” But for each woman whose face seems soft and yearning, there are at least three whose knitted brows and tightened jaws suggest that they’re bearing down on their lives, in perfect makeup.

The show is organized chronologically, which at times seems to impose a storyline of increasing awareness of and comfort with the camera. A 1958 Robert Frank photo shows a black man in a classic “cool pose” on the back of a truck, hipshot with his hands in his pockets; this dude was clearly ready for his close-

up. Bruce Davidson’s terrific shots of the New York City subway in the graffiti-wilderness of the 1980s are made even more impressive by a wall caption revealing that he asked permission before shooting, thus making himself vulnerable to some pretty tough customers. (He seems to have a penchant for facial scars.) Davidson was threatened a few times, but he also got some amazing shots, as when he photographed an undercover cop pulling a gun on a thief.

There are photographs on the classic theme of humans making a home for themselves in our heartless machinery: A young woman weaves her body between the iron railings at the end of the subway car, her hair blowing out to the left and the whole picture washed in shades of blue. These people present themselves to the camera, like the glossily black-skinned woman who tilts her chin up to offer the perfect three-quarters profile, or the man with two scars spiderwebbing past one eye, his head slightly tilted and his gaze steady.

Jean M. Twenge’s recent Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before reports:

In the early 1950s, only 12 percent of teens aged 14 to 16 agreed with the statement “I am an important person.” By the late 1980s an incredible 80 percent—almost seven times as many—claimed they were important.

This statistic probably does reflect an increase in American narcissism, but it’s worth remembering that each individual is inherently interesting and important; that’s part of what motivates the final displays in this exhibit. Philip-Lorca diCorcia uses flash and timer technology to make ordinary people look cinematically airbrushed, and Beat Streuli makes a film—played on a repeating loop just outside the exhibit—showing a completely normal slice of New York street life.

Is people-watching in a museum different from people-watching at a café? As Streuli’s film plays, the people do begin to seem more aesthetically interesting. Their movements are collisions of awkwardness and grace: A guy chewing a mouthful of food turns to his companion with balletic timing, to shepherd her through the crowd. A girl on a cell phone darts her hand out like she’s in a jazz revue. The unique, discordant rhythms of the individuals work with or against the overall rhythm of the crowd.

The most recent works seemed less surprising and satisfying than the earlier ones. Black-and-white film is unusually good at conveying texture, and the color-soaked photos of Bruce Davidson have a gritty, homemade, and flawed feeling, whereas the red-carpet technique used by diCorcia tends to flatten out individuality. This may also be due to the choice of subjects: The girl who is the focus of one of diCorcia’s photos is quite pretty in an interchangeable-starlet way. There are fashions in women’s faces, and it’s easier to see the individuality in a less trendy face. And overall, the people in the more recent photographs seem more contented and less knowing. Presumably, this reflects the photographer’s own interests, since I would guess that 1940s Bridgeport wasn’t a center of hard-bitten realism.

Still, as the exhibit (perhaps) unfairly and unintentionally argues, our pictures are more interesting when we like the camera less.

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington.

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