'I don’t press the shutter. The image does,' Diane Arbus once said. 'And it’s like being gently clobbered.' That softly smothering sensation, at once mellow and menacing, pulses through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition of Arbus’ early work. On view until 27 November at the Met Breuer, 'Diane Arbus: In the beginning' is a revelation, bringing together more than 100 photographs – most of them never before exhibited or published – that show Arbus honing her ability to capture secret and sublime moments of daily life.

Unlike her predecessors and peers who employed various techniques to distance or conceal themselves from their subjects (whether Helen Levitt’s right-angle viewfinder or the surreptitious snapping of Walker Evans), 'Arbus was looking for the poignancy of a direct personal encounter', says Met curator Jeff Rosenheim, who spent the last eight years combing through her vast archive: a trove of photographs, negatives, notebooks and correspondence donated to the museum by Arbus’ two daughters. 'This longing to know, this curiosity about the hidden nature of who or what she was photographing, coupled with her belief in the power of the camera to make that visible, is what sets her apart.'

Arbus’ passionate interest in the individual – whether a carnival fire eater, a cab driver, an elfin schoolgirl, or a corpse in open-chested repose ('with receding hairline and a toe tag', she notes in the grisly 1959 image’s title) – and contagious delight in finding that singular face in the crowd are underscored by the exhibition design, the work of the Met’s Brian Butterfield. Eschewing chronology and thematic cohesion, the show presents each photograph on its own slender wall. The 47 pale grey slabs echo Marcel Breuer’s gridded concrete ceiling and the urban streets of Manhattan (here framed by one of Breuer’s trapezoidal windows), where many of the photographs were shot.

The presentation celebrates the anonymous yet invites intimate encounters with the photographs, which focus on the first seven years of Arbus’ career, from 1956 to 1962. Confronting a single image bracketed by empty space empowers the viewer to scrutinise rather than contextualise, to savour faces and places that resist the cloying corruption of nostalgia. 'We have lost our ability to look at small things,' says Rosenheim, who recalls sketching the design concept on a napkin. 'This building gave me the opportunity to do this – I couldn’t have done it anywhere else.'