Walker Evans, “Subway Portraits, 1938–1941”

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Like the artistic pursuit it documents, “I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street” is episodic, elliptical, and even a little claustrophobic.

Street photography, along with portraiture, documentary, and landscape work, occupies a storied place in the history of the medium, and justly so. But “I Spy” seeks to distill this tradition into the work of just six photographers—Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and Beat Streuli—working primarily in one city, New York. A good number of the images in the exhibit aren’t even on the street proper. Many were taken underground on the subway.

It’s not hard to find a more diverse selection of street imagery—exactly a decade ago, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s superior “Open City: Street Photography Since 1950” broadened the selection to include the hyperkineticism of Garry Winogrand, the landscape-oriented images of Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston, the monumental artifices of Jeff Wall, and the Cindy Sherman-esque performance cosplay of Nikki S. Lee, among others.

The National Gallery of Art’s effort focuses on a promising trope: the distance between observer and observed, particularly when the interaction is shaped by subterfuge. “Like children playing the game ‘I Spy’ in the back seat of a car, whose choice of subjects is largely dependent on chance, these photographers limited their frame of reference as a way to embrace serendipity,” the wall text explains. Evans, Frank, diCorcia, and Streuli all found ways to select their subjects with a degree of randomness.

The exhibition underplays a potentially creepy sense of voyeurism, though telling details do slip through. Evans waited 20 years to publish the images of his unsuspecting subway seatmates, a quaint politesse that’s about 19 years, 364 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds longer than the interval would be today. Frank’s bus images, containing the same vibe of alienation that makes his The Americans so timelessly compelling, are the strongest of the three earlier photographers, but the exhibit gathers steam as it approaches the present. Davidson, using a drenched, almost confrontational color palette, documents the New York City subway and its denizens at their 1980–1981 nadir, complete with dirt, sweat, and garish coats of graffiti.

Meanwhile, diCorcia and Streuli extricate viewers from the claustrophobia by moving aboveground (and benefiting from their timing in the Giuliani and Bloomberg eras, respectively). DiCorcia’s most impressive series is “Heads,” in which he creates a jury-rigged, sensor-triggered mechanism by which pedestrians unwittingly photograph themselves; the bright flash turns mail carriers, office workers, and others into unlikely celebrities. Streuli uses video smartly, training his camera on a stationary spot and capturing whoever crosses into its viewfinder. The resulting video loop, made in 2010, documents the world of smartphones and iPods; now, rather than the photographer being the only one trying to remain anonymous in the crowd, pedestrians have joined in the game too, actively trying to cut themselves off from their surroundings.

Ultimately, the premise of the exhibit—that these photographers embrace serendipity and randomness—rings hollow. The raw material for these encounters may be chance interactions, but it is the photographer, most assuredly not the subject, who chooses what images to accept or reject, what photographs to share with the public, and how to tweak the final artwork. Evans, for instance, experiments with cropping and shading the images of his fellow commuters, while Streuli apparently decides to slow down, almost imperceptibly, the playback speed of his pedestrians’ perambulations, turning a bustling street corner into an unexpectedly unhurried oasis. Each photographer, intentionally or not, is the master of this urban domain; their images don’t just reflect happenstance reality, but alter it as well.