Exposed Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera
Tate Modern London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Harry Callahan Untitled (Atlanta) 1984
Harry Callahan Untitled (Atlanta) 1984

Little could the British inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot, have imagined, when in 1841 he developed the calotype, an early photographic process using paper coated with silver iodide, where this nascent technology would lead; the ethical and moral questions that photography would raise. From Fox Talbot’s point of view the camera was about producing ‘natural images’. But more than 150 years later we know that the photographer’s relationship with his subject is more complicated. As Susan Sontag perceptively put it in her seminal book On Photography: “like a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much further away. It offers, in one easy, habit-forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others – allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation.”

Walker Evans Street Scene New York 1928
Walker Evans Street Scene New York, 1928

Voyeurism and its cousin, surveillance, have been one of the unforeseen consequences of photography. We take it as a given of modern life that the celebrity is both hungry for photographic coverage, whilst feeling that the paparazzi (as in the case of the late Princess Diana) is constantly hounding them. One of the most complex questions raised by photography is what constitutes private space, provoking slippery questions about who is looking at whom and the degree of surreptitious pleasure and exploitation of power involved. Since its invention the camera has been used to make clandestine images and satisfy the desire to see what is normally hidden or taboo. No one knows exactly how many CCTV cameras are spying on us in the UK as we go about our day to day lives. A figure of 4.2 million cameras has been cited. That’s about one for every 14 citizens and means that most of us will pass an average of 300 cameras a day. Mobile phone and digital cameras are now ubiquitous, making voyeurs of us all.

This summer Tate Modern’s massive show Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, takes a look at photography’s voyeuristic role from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present day. Taking as its starting point the idea of the unseen photographer the exhibition includes a wide range of images, from the impromptu to the intimate, taken in a number of ingenious ways. For when the camera moved out of the photographic studio into the street – where originally no one expected to find it – it was easy to take a subject unawares. By around 1870 advances in technology meant that the gelatine dry-plate had virtually eliminated the cumbersome wet-plate process which had evolved from the daguerreotype and salt print. Movement became easier to record. With the dry plate’s increased sensitivity came the invention of the shutter, which regulated the passage of light into the lens to hundredths of seconds, allowing for a reduction in camera size. Soon cameras became small enough to hide and use covertly. These early portable examples known as ‘detectives’ were often more fanciful than useful. On display at Tate Modern is an (undated) pair of men’s black brogues with a camera hidden in the heel. It seems uni-bombers are not the only ones to favour shoes. Others were concealed in canes or umbrella heads. Among the most practical was the early ‘vest pocket’ camera designed to be worn on a man’s chest with the lens located in a cravat or tie, where a stick pin might have been, leaving the hands relatively free.

Shizuka Yokomizo Stranger No. 2 1999
Shizuka Yokomizo Stranger No. 2, 1999

By the 1880s George Eastman’s Kodak, which needed little or no focussing, allowed the man or woman in the street to shoot (note the violent terminology alluding to the stalking of prey) their own ‘snap’ shots. Walker Evans Street Scene The photographer became a potential violator of private space, snapping bathing young women like some latter-day version of Susannah spied upon by those biblical elders, and intruding on moments of public tragedy, as well as private grief. Divided into five areas the exhibition explores street photography, the sexually explicit or implicit – pictures we normally associate with voyeurism and pornography, celebrity stalking, death and violence, along with surveillance in its many forms. Some of the viewing is uncomfortable, turning us and not just the photographer into a voyeur. There is Auguste Belloc’s 1860s image of an unknown Victorian woman (covering her face with her hand, whilst lifting her voluminous petticoats to expose herself), Jacques-André Boiffard and Man Ray’s 1930 fetishised Seabrook, Justine in Mask with black stockings, high heels and a dildo, as well as more contemporary shots by Kohei Yoshiyuki of Japanese men, unaware that they are being photographed, gathering a dark park around copulating couples to indulge in their oniastic pleasures, and Robert Mapplethorpe’s deliberately provocative 1980 image of a Man in Polyester Suit exposing his amble manhood. But it is not images such as these, or the one of a group of fat bellied guys gathered in a tent in Presque Isle, Maine around a masturbating female on a platform, as if watching a performing circus dog, that are as disquieting as the images of extreme poverty: the bum sleeping on a sidewalk in the Bowery NYC or the appalling conditions suffered by lodgers in a crowded, filthy Bayard Street tenement in 1899, where it cost ‘Five Cents a Spot’ to share a louse ridden mattress and huddle round the solid fuel stove.

Photography is particularly good a catching fleeting moments of despair when the subject is unaware of the camera. Paul Strand’s Man, Five Points Square, New York taken in 1916, stares ahead from beneath his battered homburg, his face unshaven, and his eyes full of disappointment, like one of Beckett’s tramps. Perhaps it is all to do with the photographer’s intent. During the summer of 1936 Walker Evans worked with the writer James Agee on a project for Fortune magazine. The conflict between being intruders and compassionate artists was one of which they were constantly aware. Their photographs of the humble dwellings of the impoverished tenant farmers whom they befriended in Alabama are full of painful dignity, creating a sense of the sacramental from the modest lives of these ordinary people.

Georges Dudognon Greta Garbo in the Club St. Germain Paris c.1950s
Georges Dudognon Greta Garbo in the Club St. Germain Paris, c.1950s

But it is the images of violence that are the hardest to look at and raise most questions. What right does a photographer have to snap the last desperate moments of a woman jumping into the street to escape the fire that engulfed the Hotel Ambassador in 1959, or the brutality of a Viet Cong Officer executing a terrified civilian, or William Saunders’ 1860s picture of a Chinese Execution, which is made no less chilling through the lens of history? Two of the most unsettling pictures are Malcolm Browne’s Vietnamese monk immolating himself in 1963 before American TV cameras in protest against the government’s torture of priests, and the disquieting 1928 record of Ruth Snyder hooded and strapped ready for execution in the electric chair. Can the photographer justify intruding on these last desperate moments? Are we lessened by such images? Or do they become such a potent part of our moral landscape and cultural heritage that they are worth having at all costs?

Perhaps all subjects who are taken without their permission are, in some way, victims. Though as celebrities, willing engaged in a Faustian pact with the photographer, this makes the situation more ambiguous; the moral here might be, be careful what you wish for. The interest in Liz Taylor and Richard Burton was such that they could not enjoy a private canoodle as they sunbathed on the deck of a boat in 1962, without the intrusive lens of a long distant camera seeking them out. Greta Garbo famously wanted to be left alone as we can see from the hand raised in front of her face in a St. Germain night-club, while Andy Warhol was more than happy to reveal the scars of his near fatal stabbing by “Vox Superstar”, a mentally disturbed young woman by the name of Olga Kulbis, who developed an unhealthy obsession with Warhol and vampires whilst hanging around his studio, the Factory. His ease with celebrity is such that he simply colludes with the photographer to turn his wounds into art.

Ron Galella, What Makes Jackie Run?
Ron Galella, What Makes Jackie Run?
Central Park, New York City, October 4, 1971

For those who have seen Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, that charts an agent of the secret police in 1984 East Berlin conducting a surveillance on a writer and his lover, the emotional and ethical questions around spying are brilliantly played out. War has long fed the drive for new surveillance technologies to gain advantage over the enemy. But today such covert prying has become an ubiquitous part of everyday modern life, most often taken by unguided machines that simply watch over us like some omniscient deity. There are photographs, here, of Russian missiles sites in Cuba in 1962, built in a characteristic Star of David pattern, that made an irrefutable case when Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, presented them as evidence of Russian aggression in America’s backyard, and there is a threatening image of the Golf Five Zero watchtower (known to the British army as ‘Borucki Sanger’) in South Armagh, a potent symbol of the northern Irish troubles at the end of the twentieth century. There is also work by the contemporary French photographer Sophie Calle who has used the camera to explore how surveillance destabilises notions of public and private space.

This fascinating exhibition asks if we have unavoidably become a society of voyeurs. Images which were never intended to be seen by a wider audience that have now entered the collective public imagination such as that of the kidnap of the toddler James Bulger being lead away by two ten year old boys, who would later murder him, in an anonymous shopping mall, and the infamous pyramid of naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, watched over by two American soldiers in green rubber gloves, giving the thumbs up. Along with the proliferation of camera phones, reality TV, You Tube videos and photographs of private events plastered on public sites such as Facebook, go the debates about terrorism and personal safety. The ubiquitous security camera has, it seems, become an unintended icon of our age. Big Brother is alive and well.

Exposed Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera at Tate Modern from 28 May to 3 October 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Image 1: © The Estate of Harry Callahan. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York
Image 2: © Walker Evans Archive. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Image 3: © Shizuka Yokomizo
Image 4: © Estate of Georges Dudognon
Image 5: © Ron Galella, Ltd.

Published in 3 Quarks Daily


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