Some time in the 1930s, fashion magazines acquired a stark, stirring drama. Instead of merely trotting out women in that season’s clothes, the photographs of that period scrambled the physical world, suggested jagged states of mind, and made lavish use of metaphor and allusion. This style — or Modern Look, as the Jewish Museum puts it — originated in the schools and studios of Europe, washed overseas on a tide of refugees, and reshaped the visual culture of the postwar years. The avant-garde learnt to be commercial.

That’s the premise, anyway, and it yields a loose argument wrapped around a delightful mélange studded with unfamiliar delicacies.

Curator Mason Klein invokes György Kepes as the show’s presiding muse. A disciple of the artist Moholy-Nagy, Kepes followed his fellow Hungarian first to London and then, in 1937, to Chicago. He believed that the images saturating an urbanite’s world — posters, container labels, store windows — could retrain the eye to see in new ways. A formally innovative photo might jolt viewers into mind-shifts through the power of disorienting angles and radical close-ups.

The show opens with “The Two Faces of Juliet”, a double silhouette of Kepes’s wife looking in opposite directions. The magician is showing off his technical tricks. He laid Juliet’s head against photosensitive paper and exposed it to light, repeated the process, then superimposed on the Janus-like profile a cat’s cradle of wires and washers. Instead of looking into her brain with an X-ray, he opens a trapdoor into the mechanical structure of her soul. The goal, he later explained, is “seeing beyond the surface of visible things, to recognise the values necessary for an integrated life.”

Like many of the prophets of modernism whom the Nazis scattered, Kepes was aligned with the Bauhaus, which preached the fusion of art and commerce. Grete Stern and Ellen Auerbach met as students of the Bauhaus instructor Walter Peterhans, then together opened the Berlin studio Ringl + Pit. Their 1932 advertisement for the hair dye Komol hangs right next to Kepes’s “Juliet”, as if to assure her that ageing is a manageable problem. Two clumps of hair, one white, one dark, spring from a wire mesh that has been stretched across the silhouette of a female face.

Like the ads they produced for glove manufacturers, cigarette companies and motor oil, “Komol” augurs the direction that commercial photography would take in the coming decades: clean modernist lines with a soupçon of surrealism. Ringl + Pit are playing a double game here. They extol the transfiguring power of their product — its miraculous ability to spin old age back to youth — via a feminine profile caught behind a cage-like grille. Their own ad undermines the product’s promise of transformation. (The studio lasted only a few years: Stern emigrated to Buenos Aires, Auerbach wound up in New York.)

The theme of the perfect face, sexily enmeshed, evidently appealed to Erwin Blumenfeld, who, over two decades and two continents, took a number of pictures of women in hats with veils. In one 1938 image for French Vogue, a model with bleached skin and a mask-like smile stares out through a swath of netting. She reveals nothing, and the effect is at once sexy and cold. Blumenfeld’s trajectory encapsulates the smooth passage from avant-garde to haute couture. Born in Berlin, he began as a Dada collagist in the 1920s, was interned in French concentration camps during the second world war, and made his way to the US in 1941. Within a decade he was one of the world’s most highly paid fashion photographers.

The most adroit impresario of the European-born “Look” was the Russian émigré Alexey Brodovitch, who, as art director at Harper’s Bazaar, commanded the nexus between fashion, art, culture and innovation. “Astonish me,” he would command his acolytes, urging them each to find a style as individual as a fingerprint. In his own work, seen here in prints for his 1945 book Ballet, he used long exposures to capture bodies gliding through time, or else moved the camera, blurring and distorting dancers to mimic their wildest leaps. Like Kepes, he believed that the photograph could reveal more than the eye could see. “The photograph is not only a pictorial report; it is also a psychological report,” he declared.

Brodovitch’s most famous protégés, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, make dutiful appearances at the Jewish Museum, but the most startling photos come from Brodovitch’s less well-known discoveries: Saul Leiter and Louis Faurer. Shooting mostly at night, they infuse an ostensibly objective medium with jazzy poetry, urban jangle and the syncopation of neon on chrome’s metallic gleam.

Leiter wielded form lyrically. For a 1951 Life spread, he etched a series of dark figures against a twilit sky, incarnating the alienated citizens of a lonely city. Leiter was ambling up Fifth Avenue when he spotted a sombre gathering outside a church. Edging closer, he discovered that the dignified mourners were in fact wedding guests. He lingered on a man in a bowler hat, his face tipped upward and a cigarette dangling from his invisible mouth. Branches unfurl, like a tangle of dreams, from the back of his head. Leiter, who abandoned rabbinic studies to become an artist, was drawn to the way the rituals of life and death mirror one another with poetic synchronicity.

Faurer discovered in photography an aesthetic shortcut through intricate human relations. Like so many modernists, he operated by synecdoche. In “Freudian Handclasp”, which appeared in the luminous but shortlived Flair magazine in 1950, a couple’s entwined hands evoke a different matched set of body parts. The woman’s erect finger, encased in a glove, penetrates the man’s grip. Another equally arresting picture is shot through the two front windows of a darkened bus, which, like a pair of eyes, take in the lights and tumult of Times Square. We are as one with the vehicle as it navigates the night-time city, part of, yet also far from, the madding crowd.

Modern Look ends with a looped slideshow of “Black and White Things”, a spectacular portfolio by Faurer’s friend and fellow Brodovitchian, Robert Frank. As the pages turn, they flip by an epigraph from The Little Prince that serves as a motto for a photo show that delights in surfaces and aspires to reveal what lies beneath: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

To July 11,

Follow  on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first