Tate Modern has put on another tantalising photographic exhibition. The theme is focused on aspects of voyeurism, in the broadest sense, and in many ways photography has always been about voyeurism. Take portraiture, which should be compliant with the subject yet the photographer may want to present the subject in a ‘new light’ revealing inner depths of his /her personality – perhaps even unknown to the subject -a voyeur!
Exposed – Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera
Tate Modern 28 May – 3 October 2010
Since its invention, the camera has been used to make images surreptitiously and satisfy the desire to see what is hidden. Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera examines photography’s role in voyeuristic looking from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present day. It includes pictures taken by professional photographers and artists, but also images made without our knowledge on a daily basis through the proliferation of CCTV.
The exhibition is divided into five thematic sections: The Unseen Photographer, Celebrity and the Public Gaze, Voyeurism and Desire, Witnessing Violence, and Surveillance. In each case, the nature and character of invasive looking is evident not only in the images themselves, but also in the ways in which the viewer is implicated in acts of voyeurism. Rather than blame the camera for showing illicit or forbidden material, Exposed explores the uneasy relationship between making and viewing images that deliberately cross lines of privacy and propriety.
The unseen photographer
The first section of the exhibition considers ways in which photography can reveal the world unawares and show people caught with their guard down. This idea begins with the technologies that have allowed images to be made surreptitiously, from nineteenth-century cameras hidden in walking sticks, shoes or inside suit-jackets, to twentieth-century devices such as the lateral view-finder which allows the photographer to apparently face one direction while taking a picture in another.
Celebrity and the public gaze
Weegee (Arthur Fellig)
Marilyn Monroe c1950s
© Weegee / International Center of Photography / Getty Images
The notion of celebrity as we know it today is inseparable from the invention of photography. By the 1860s, photographic studio portraits allowed notable figures to become instantly recognisable to the public. However, this period of controlled self-publicity was short-lived. Smaller, more portable cameras allowed for covert picture-taking during private moments, and faster shutter speeds opened up opportunities for capturing subjects off-guard. Whilst some famous figures have manipulated the medium to their advantage, the infringement of privacy represented by such photographs remains controversial.
Voyeurism and desire
Sexual or erotic images have been made throughout the history of photography. This section includes photographs that gaze openly at willing subjects as well as those depicting illicit and intimate acts made without the knowledge or permission of their subjects. Many of these images seem to position the viewer in the role of a ‘peeping tom’. At the same time, they pose difficult questions about who was looking and why, when the picture was made, and whether we should collude with, or reject, this point of view.
Photographs of violence produce paradoxical responses. On the one hand, the acknowledgement of the crime and confrontation with its gruesome effects is an admittance of the need for social improvement; on the other, repeated confrontation with such images may simply numb us to their shocking effects. Does photography allow us to bear witness to a victim’s suffering, or does it anaesthetize us to the horror?
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Derived from the French word ‘surveiller’, meaning ‘to keep watch’ or ‘to watch over’, the surveillance camera has been used to police borders, to assist war-time reconnaissance, to gain advantage over political enemies or simply to gather information. Techniques of surveillance are closely linked to developments in photographic technology – from the earliest aerial photographs to satellite pictures. In the twenty-first century, cameras on street corners, in shops and public buildings silently record our every move, while web-based tools such as Google Earth adapt satellite technology to ensure that there is no escape from the camera’s all-seeing eye.