Friday 28 May 2010

First Impressions: Exposed

By Sheila Corr,

‘Snapshot’ started as a term used in firing a gun, which reminds us, together with other familiar photographic terms such as ‘capture’ and ‘taking a shot’, that not all subjects have offered themselves willingly to the camera. Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera opens today, May 28th, at Tate Modern. The museum's fifth exhibition devoted to photography analyses and reflects on this hunt for prey, and explores the nature of intrusion throughout the history of photography, and the viewer’s complicity in the intrusion. Is it acceptable to invade someone’s privacy in this way and if so, when and why? If you look at the results of that invasion, are you too crossing the line?

Contemporary photography is at the centre of 'Exposed', but illuminated by earlier, and often more familiar work. The opening room sets the scene where Walker Evans’ surreptitious close-ups of passengers on the New York subway (taken with the simplest of cameras in the 1930s) are paired with Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads of unaware New Yorkers. The photographic technology of 2000 is certainly much more advanced, but the result is strikingly similar.

The exhibition is divided into five thematic sections: The Unseen Photographer, Celebrity & the Public Gaze, Voyeurism & Desire, Witnessing Violence, and Surveillance. The first of these includes pioneering work by Lewis Hine, which drew attention to the exploitation of child labour in American mines and factories, and Paul Martin’s Victorian London street scenes. They show ordinary people going about their daily life observed by an invisible but highly skilled photographer who often went to elaborate lengths to conceal himself and his camera, in order to catch what Cartier-Bresson (well represented here) called ‘the decisive moment’, the exact second when all the elements needed to create a perfect composition are in place.

The Countess of Castiglione was the first celebrity to manipulate her own image back in the 1860s when she enacted bizarre personal fantasies for the camera. These days, however, fame generally entails relentless pursuit by the paparazzi and even in 1889, the artist Degas was ‘caught’ leaving a pissoir. Less surprising in this section are shots of Garbo trying to shield herself from the public gaze, or Eliabeth Taylor and Richard Burton ‘papped’ by Marcello Geppetti embracing as they sunbathe. Alison Jackson’s ersatz representations of lookalikes posed as the rich and famous in compromising situations, such as Jack Nicholson in road rage, raise questions of the viewer’s role by highlighting the humour.

The later rooms, starting with ‘Voyeurism & Desire’, move into more uncomfortable territory. Brassai’s shots of a seedy thirties Paris are familiar scenes of low life, as are Helmut Newton’s take on the world of fashion, but more dominant here are the reflections of women photographers who turn their critical gaze back on the peeping toms watching strippers and visiting brothels. ‘Witnessing Violence’ takes this questioning further: ‘Does photography allow us to bear witness to a victim’s suffering, or does it anaesthetize us to the horror?’ The horror is dead bodies (Weegee’s New York features strongly), suicides, assassinations, executions and concentration camp atrocities, dating back to the earliest 19th century photographs of conflict by Alexander Gardner and Felice Beato. The answer is ambivalent as war photographers frequently testify.

The intimacy of the photographer’s relationship with his/her subject disappears in the exhibition’s last section ‘Surveillance’, which opens into a much wider, more open exhibition space thus emphasizing that distance. Some of these are random shots taken at a fixed spot by CCTV, intended to record and sometimes incriminate. They often involve no artistic ‘eye’, but are nevertheless an interesting development in the technology and purpose of photography.
Although I like the early aerial views and love Simon Norfolk’s web of wires on Ascension Island, I was less engaged by the detailed recording of the minutiae of time and place while recognising it as an unavoidable conclusion to an exhibition about surreptitious camerawork. These days cameras are turned on us from all sides pretty much wherever we go, leaving our right to privacy an arguable concept. Well and truly exposed.

Walker Evans, Street Scene, New York, 1928
Gelatin silver print
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
©Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera
Until October 3rd

Tate Modern
London SE1 9TG
Telephone: 020 7887 8888

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