How To Sell The Joke

In a happy accident of geography, two shows in midtown Manhattan present work by three of the most iconic street photographers of the past century. Many photos are familiar, but considered as a group, the pictures appear fresh--and remarkably funny. The comedy is inherent in Elliott Erwitt's photographs at the Edwynn Houk Gallery (through Feb. 23); around the corner at Laurence Miller Gallery, the humor becomes apparent mainly in the juxtaposition of the works by Diane Arbus and Helen Levitt (through March 10).

Levitt, who photographed New York street scenes in the 1930s and ' 40s, predated Arbus by a generation, yet anticipated many of Arbus's obsessions: children, couples, family life and solitude. The exhibit pairs 20 black-and-white Arbus images with similar-ly themed shots by Levitt. While Arbus is known for chronicling humanity at its most undefended, Levitt's gaze is tender, leavening the impact of Arbus's work. One of Arbus's best-known pictures, a 1970 shot of a dwarf wearing a fedora and towel, is paired with Levitt's 1959 picture of a diapered baby with drawn-on eyebrows and mustache. In the context of Arbus's other misfits, the dwarf can seem sad, even menacing. But the stunning similarity between the baby and the dwarf creates an irresistible joke.

Next to Arbus and Levitt, Erwitt seems an unabashed jester of photography. Anxious newlyweds, anthropomorphized pets and men's fascination with the female form are among his favorite themes. But just as it would be a mistake to miss the humor in Arbus's and Levitt's work, Erwitt is more than a visual punster; his photos would be at home just around the corner. A 1963 black-and-white of three women on a bench under the sign "Lost Persons Area" elicits an instant smile. But it also echoes Arbus, who in a sense made a career of photographing lost persons. And a 1968 Erwitt shot a naked family at play recalls Arbus's 1963 photo of nudists at home, which in turn suggests Levitt's 1940 shot of a man in a suit gawking at an undressed female mannequin. As all three photographers seemed to find, few things are funnier than naked people.

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