Exposed: Voyeurism, cost Surveillance and the Camera at the Tate Modern claims to be the first major exhibition to try and document our complex relationship with voyeurism and covert photography. It’s a fascinating subject and Exposed attempts to unravel this relationship via a series of themed rooms rather than a systematic historical walk through. So in the first room we are immediately confronted with the giant flash lit photos of people caught unawares in the street by Philip-Lorca diCorcia alongside tiny ancient photographs in sepia from Horace Engle, who captured his subjects sitting on the trams in small town America during the late 1800s at a time when unposed scenes were far from the norm. The contrast could not be more stark in terms of the garments worn or the technical prowess, but the unselfconscious expressions of those who don’t know they are being preserved for posterity just at that precise moment remain the same. The curation of this fabulous exhibition brings about a fascinating realisation that the carefully cultured veneer that humans present in public situations (where we know we are being watched) has not changed a jot over the years.
Detail from the Head series, 2001, by Philip-Lorca diCorcia.
Detail from Subway Passengers, New York, 1938 by Walker Evans.
Oh woops, this isn’t in the exhibition, but it’s an example of covert photography on the tube in May 2010.
At a time when photographers had become more sneaky about their trade Walker Evans spent three years during the 1940s surreptitiously photographing passengers on the New York subway, and an accompanying case displays examples of the cunning implements that were used by him and others, including a walking stick, a shoe and a flattened disc worn beneath a shirt – lens peaking out through a buttonhole. Deception could have its downsides though as HR Voth discovered whilst documenting the Hopi Indians in Arizona over a period of 9 years at the turn of the 19th century – when they found out what he was up to he was summarily blamed for all their ills and ejected from their tribe.
All sorts of sneaky tricks were used to capture an unaware public; Yale Joel set up a trick mirror in the Broadway movie theatre to capture women and men making subtle adjustments to their best clothes. By the 60s photographers were quite literally stalking their prey – the photographs of Lee Friedlander include his shadow, eerily close to the backs of his subjects.
Salinas, CA, 1972 by Lee Friedlander.
We are then given the opportunity to examine the crossover between covert photography of the masses and the classic paparazzi shot. Alair Gomes shot strangely homoerotic pictures of young men pumping iron on the beach in Rio using a telephoto lens whilst John Gossage went one better, picking out people on a Mexican beach from his location several miles away in California, safely across the famously dangerous border. Alison Jackson became well known for her carefully staged set ups of famous people seemingly at ease and Exposed features a famous shot of the Queen playing with her corgis.
Perhaps one of the most interesting series in the exhibition belongs to an early fan of self promotion. Over a period of forty years from the mid to late 1800s Pierre-Louis Pierson was hired by the French Countess of Castiglione to present her in some extraordinary fantasy poses drawn from ideas in fashion magazines and theatre. Just think of all the celebrities who have taken her ideas to heart in the years since – all those staged marriages in the pages of Hello! magazine have their genesis in the Countess’s photo albums.
Detail from Game of Madness, 1863-66 by Pierre-Louis Pierson
Of course, as soon as the use of cameras become sly what should photographers turn their attention to but erotica? We are treated to a whole room of voyeuristic shots of prostitutes and their punters, mostly taken by secretive means. Amongst the more familiar images of the great Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helmut Newton we are treated to some fabulous shots taken by the likes of Weegee, who used infrared flash to take pictures of lovers on the beach at Coney Island or snogging each other’s faces off at the movie theatre.
Details from Lovers at the Movies and Palace Theatre, both c.1940 by Weegee.
Infrared flash is a technique that has been revisited by voyeuristic photographers the world over, and a whole run of wall is devoted to a series taken by Kohei Yoshiyuki during the 1970s, when he infiltrated groups of men who liked to stalk and attempt to touch lovers making out in the park. Although he regarded himself as one step removed from the men he joined he admitted that the act of photography was one of voyeurism too.
Photo from the series The Park, 1971 by Kohei Yoshiyuki.
And therein lies an interesting conundrum. What is the difference between a voyeur with or without a lens to separate them from an event? At the end of the day is there any division at all? Or does wielding a camera merely legitimise an act of voyeurism, allowing us to partake in an event without feeling too closely attached to it? As someone widely practiced in the more voyeuristic end of photography I can confirm that I use the camera as a form of safety blanket in high stress situations like climate activism, allowing me to get closer to subjects than I would otherwise feel less confident about engaging with (very large Danish riot police with huge steel boots, batons and pepper spray). Taking photos satisfies my need to be in the thick of an event whilst retaining an element of separation. I’m there, but not there. The reason I enjoy taking photos in other situations – such as on the tube – is less clearcut. I simply enjoy capturing a visually interesting scene that hasn’t been staged for my benefit.
All this brings me to the last rooms of Exposed, which are devoted to surveillance, CCTV and the use of documentary photography to capture acts of aggression. I didn’t have as much time to peruse these sections, but they necessarily featured lots of photos from more recent times, as cameras have become a more and more ubiquitous part of our existence.
Detail from a photo in the series The City, 1997 by Mitch Epstein.
This is a thought provoking exhibition and a must see not just for photographers but for anyone intrigued in how the documenting eye has become ingrained in our lives over the space of less than two centuries.
You can find out more about Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera here. The exhibition opens today and runs until 3rd October 2010 before travelling on to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art where it will be open from 20th October 2010 – 17th April 2011.
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