Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera

Exposed is a compelling survey of 250 works that tackles subjects both iconic and taboo, questioning the ambiguity of surveillance and voyeurism.

The prolific use of mobile phones, cameras, CCTV, and the internet has ensured that we are never alone or unwatched, and that each of us is cast as unwitting voyeurs ourselves. New technology has enabled us to become amateur artists and removed the cloak of innocence that used to shroud candid, amateur shots. Dramatic as it may sound, we increasingly live in a Big Brother society where every move is watched and charted, in, for the most part, the interest of “safety”. We are members of a post-9/11 society that is increasingly content to allow a higher degree of surveillance and intrusion into our private lives as this intrusion supposedly offers more protection. The inherently invasive quality of the photograph is discussed by critics, typically from a more theoretical standpoint than an actual examination of the historical use of photography as a tool of investigation and documentation.

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, opens this summer at Tate Modern, and takes as a starting point the unwitting subject – the focal point of the photograph captured innocent and unaware. The exhibition, co-curated by Sandra Phillips (of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and Simon Baker (of Tate), aims to complete this often negated aspect of art history through the thematic arrangement of five specific strands of photography: the hidden/unseen photographer; voyeuristic photography; the cult of the celebrity and paparazzi; the camera as witness to violence; and surveillance. Exposed demonstrates by its execution that the subject is never as innocent as it may seem. Whether one of Brassai’s prostitutes who are, by their profession, always on stage and posing for a potential customer, or the celebrity figures photographed by paparazzi such as Ron Gallela, the audience is never wholly oblivious.

The exhibition includes more than 250 works of photography and film, brought together by Phillips and Baker in order to comprehensively illustrate each thematic strand. Surveillance photography, from a private eye photographing a cheating husband to international espionage, has perhaps been the least examined in an art historical and critical sense as it is usually seen as a scientific tool rather than an art object. Surveillance footage necessarily involves the use of film as well as photographic cameras and has been used as an artistic tool by artists, like Bruce Nauman, since the 1970s. Nauman’s Video Corridor (1968) consisted of two surveillance cameras placed at either end of two parallel floor-to-ceiling walls so that the viewer was faced with concurrent images of themselves. Through the camera’s placement and the spatial arrangement of the walls to create a claustrophobic space, the viewer stands within a panoptic enclosure in which they exist as both audience and subject. Video Corridor encapsulates the reality of contemporary Machiavellian society: how often do we walk into a store and see ourselves depicted on carefully situated observable camera screens? Works by Nauman, along with artists like Merry Alpern and Thomas Demand, examine and illustrate the prevalence of surveillance footage and the circulated image in mainstream society and how their availability impact our own perceptions of ourselves. By simply leaving one’s house, the viewer steps onto an urban stage and becomes an unwitting performer.

The art critic and curator, Michael Rush, states that, “It is a short leap from looking (fixing one’s gaze upon another) to voyeurism (taking delight in extended gazing) to spying (surreptitiously studying the actions of another).” As children we are told not to stare, because staring bridges that gap between innocent­ly looking and the voyeuristic gaze. Photographers, like Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Weegee (aka Arthur Fellig), are difficult to categorise as they both look and spy, and have certain voyeuristic qualities to their work. Weegee originally worked as a freelance news photographer during the 1930s, chasing down often violent crime scenes via the police radios he kept with him in his car. The resultant images portray an often harsh reality, documenting the aftermath of crime and neglect. There is a vulnerable element to many of Weegee’s images as he captures the fleeting emotions of crime: the fear, the cruelty, the misery, and the defeat. His photographs, in many ways, could thematically fall within each strand of Exposed.

Weegee, like Henri Carter-Bresson and Jacob Riis, among others, photo­graphed the “decisive” moment, those moments lost by staged photography, but encapsulated by candid street photography. To differentiate between voyeurism and street photography has become an increasingly difficult task. Jacob Riis, an American journalist during the late 19th century, was perhaps one of the first street photographers. Riis used the element of surprise, often bursting into dark tenements and quickly taking a flash photograph before scurrying away. He was one of the first to use flash photography in this way – as a form of social awareness using the photograph in order to reveal the depravation and poverty existent in the New York tenements. Baker argues that it is the very fact that the tenement dwellers were caught unaware and by surprise that the images are so powerful, as the photographs capture the true reality of their existence. Walker Evans, whose work is also included in the exhibition, typifies an artist who would fall outside the category of a “street photographer” as his work is of rural early twentieth century society and is slightly more staged. However, Evans, like Diane Arbus after him, had the unnerving ability to emphasise with his subjects in such a way as to draw out the hidden emotions of the human psyche. His images of families and children can often be disturbing and uncomfortable as they depict people at the crossroads and in the throes of exploration.

The term “voyeuristic photography” is perhaps best exemplified by an artist such as Kohei Yoshiyuki. His photographic series “The Park”, which was first exhibited in 1979 at Komai Gallery in Tokyo, depicts images of heterosexual and homosexual couples engaging in public sexual acts at night in Tokyo parks. Yoshiyuki focuses not just on the couples in his photographs, but the peeping toms that creep up to watch. These images spotlight the fascination with “looking” – an often morbid fascination that causes people to slow down when driving past a fatal car accident on the side of the road. Intrinsic to the act of “looking” is that of desire and fetish: the camera’s eye captures a moment and thereby possesses that moment. Playboy and Hustler magazines have capitalized upon this relationship between image and audience. The viewer cannot touch the naked woman depicted, but they can own the magazine in which the image is presented; desire consummated in effect. Unlike Nan Goldin, who knowingly took on the role of peeping tom, Yoshiyuki distanced himself from such a label by placing an actual voyeur between himself, the camera, and the subject. Goldin’s photographic series, Ballad of Sexual Dependency, documents the intimate and private moments of her friends, allowing her audience a glimpse into her world. Her subjects know her, and one assumes, had given some form of permission to Goldin to photograph at whim. There is thus a sense of familiarity and comfort in the photographs as they are less awkwardly staged than images by a photographer of an anonymous / unknown subject and consequently have an inherent eroticism. By inviting Goldin in on private moments, usually invisible to the camera’s lens, they are inviting her to participate in that act which is photographed. Contemporary artists, such as Tracy Emin with her Unmade Bed (1999), follow in the footsteps of Goldin, inviting the audience to participate in her private life as she makes it public.

Goldin and Emin specifically invite the audience into their lives, thereby acting as their own subject, and raising questions about participation, distance, observation, and the sanctity of one’s public image. The knowing subject, such as those captured by Shizuka Yokomizo, is an empowered subject as it can create an image of how they would like to be seen. Yokomizo’s series Stranger (1998-2000) was centred on this idea of the participatory photography: subjects were sent an anonymous letter asking them to stand in front of their window at a specific time and date and to stand still whilst she photographed them (she stipulated in the letter that they should close their blinds should they not wish to participate). Yokomizo never revealed her identity and existed as an anonymous entity, appearing as nothing but a dark shadow committing an intimate act. The very participation of the subject in this series exhibits an extraordinary degree of trust and security in the unknown photographer as they are entrusting her with their public persona within that most private of places: the home. Exposed illustrates the difficulty that photographers have with creating a relationship between themselves and their subject, whether they want that relationship to be somewhat anonymous as with Yokomizo’s works, or whether they want their relationship to be personal, as with Goldin.

The photograph is an inherently erotic object, because it visually captures the human form on paper. When photography was first introduced as an artistic medium during the nineteenth century, it was looked upon in fear by many who saw the image as “stealing” a part of one’s soul. As a printed piece of paper the photograph was seen to contain a portion of the human element, thus the inanimate object became somewhat real and desirable. In much the same way that the camera’s lens captured this human element, so does the audience through the act of looking. The politics of looking is an integral aspect to photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe, for whom the historic and prolific image of the “erotic” white female nude became a focus. Mapplethorpe took this subject and subverted it: his iconic images of the male form, and the inclu­sion of genitalia, shocked many conventional critics for whom this outright embracing of the male nude and of the New York S & M scene straddled the line between photography and pornography. Mapplethorpe photographed intimate sexual acts and captured them in an artistic and masterful way: his images are highly stylized, technically correct, and illustrate his interest in the inherent beauty of the human form. Although he generated a tremendous amount of controversy during his career, it is his images rather than the public backlash that will endure. The value of the erotic image as an art object could be debated ad infinitum, but Mapplethorpe proved, without a doubt, the cultural value of its inclusion within art historical discourse.

Phillips and Baker have chosen photographs that embody this element of the erotic and that illustrate the critical significance of the image as a provocative artistic tool. The photograph is the gaze made real, concretely exhibiting the dialectical relationship between observer and observed and calling into question the legitimacy of looking.

Exposed opened 28 May and continued until 3 October 2010 at Tate Modern. www.tate.org.uk/modern/.

Niamh Coghlan