Lee Friedlander

REVIEW: EXPOSED: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera, Tate Modern, London

28 May – 3 October 2010.

Philip Lorca diCorcia, Head series, 2002.

Let’s get something clear. EXPOSED is not an easy exhibition. Challenging, confronting, at times horrifically violent and voyeuristic, at others compelling and strangely beautiful. It is all these things. It messes with your head, your sense of propriety and your definitions, however tenuous, of what makes one photo art and another just perverse. Both visually and intellectually, this makes for a compelling, if occasionally uncomfortable, encounter.

There is a certain timeliness to this exhibition and its study of voyeurism, surveillance and the camera. We’re in an age unlike any before where technology rules the day – and wiretaps, live streaming, camera phones and paparazzi chases are the resigned norm. Examining photography as an invasive act immediately confronts the complacency with which we accept these invasions, encourage them even in our curiosity, and though it falters in parts and overwhelms in others (this is a huge exhibition), EXPOSED successfully addresses a number of the social, cultural and psychologically motivating factors behind these kinds of images – why we take them and why we look at them. Critical to this engagement is the wall text at the beginning, which states that most of the hundreds of photographs on display were taken without the subject’s knowledge. It is a distinctly creepy start.

Lee Friedlander, New York City, 1966.

Philip-Lorcia diCorcia’s Head series perhaps best embodies this conundrum. Visually they are not terribly shocking or even necessarily interesting. Theatrical lighting catches the head of someone in a crowd and the effect is of a staged encounter. In fact, these people, denominated variously as Head #23 or Head #4, were photographed without their knowledge by a series of hidden cameras, the flash triggering as they walked by. Famously, one of diCorcia’s unwitting targets tried to take legal action against him but the landmark ruling defended the artist and his right to self-expression over any right the subject might have over their own image. It is difficult to know which is worse – to be censored or to be spied upon.

DiCorcia’s contemporary street photography is contextualised by a wide range of historical precedents with work by Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander also on show. Friendlander’s New York City, 1966 in particular illustrates the hunt and shoot mentality of the street photographer, the photograph capturing a menacing shadow imprinted on the back of an unaware woman as she walks down the street.

RIchard Avedon, Andy Warhol, 1969.

The leap from documentary or street photography to paparazzi’s chasing celebrities is not a huge one but thankfully the exhibition does not dwell much beyond Alison Jackson’s parodic pap shots of celebrity lookalikes. Princess Diana, perhaps the most famous victim of the long lens is accorded only a glass case with newspaper clippings trumpeting blame for her death at the hands of the paparazzi. Nick Ut’s photograph of Paris Hilton being returned to Prison in 2007 is neatly contextualised by Giuseppe Primoli’s equally tasteless photograph of Impressionist painter Edgar Degas exiting a pissoir in Paris in the early 1880s.

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The ugliness of this celebrity fascination is deftly illustrated by Richard Avedon’s famous photograph of Andy Warhol, or rather, of Warhol’s horrific scars – the result of his near fatal shooting at the hands of Valerie Solanas in 1968. Framing the image in such a way, not capturing the pop artist’s face with his iconic shock of hair and glasses, but photographing him simply with his jumper pulled high has a number of effects. It humanises the very unreal ‘character’ of Warhol, it focuses the attention on the violence inflicted on him and intellectually, as a shooting of a shooting, it crystallises this idea of photography as a form of violation.

From here, the material in EXPOSED only gets darker as rooms dedicated to voyeurism and desire and witnessing violence complicate the viewing experience. The tenuousness of looking at these images under the guise of ‘art’ becomes slippery, particularly in the face of Susan Meiselas’s photographs of 1970s strippers and of Nicaraguan victims of genocide. Koshei Yoshiyuki’s 1979 series of nocturnal voyeurs preying on young couples in Japanese parks at night are particularly confronting. And not in a ‘goodness this is interesting’ sort of way. This idea of looking – and of discerning the voyeur from the witness remains far from resolved and our moral qualifications of historical import (think Abraham Zapruder’s film of JFK’s assassination, now oddly held in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) versus pop cultural curiosity is complicated by the realisation that the Pulitzer Prize-winning image of the young Vietnamese girl burned by napalm in 1972 was taken by the same Nick Ut who photographed Paris Hilton 35 years later.

Nick Ut’s photograph of Paris Hilton being taken to prison, 2007.

With the exception of Sophie Calle’s fabulously creepy 1981 work The Hotel, where the artist worked as a chamber maid in Venice and systematically documented the comings, goings and belongings of the hotel guests, the exhibition falters towards the end, as the focus turns specifically to ideas of surveillance. Perhaps it is simply that after 13 rooms and hundreds of works focus is difficult to maintain, or perhaps it is that after 13 rooms of confronting, voyeuristic images, these large scale works – aerial images of person-less landscapes and buildings et al – feel alternatively dry or oblique. It is an unfortunate end to what is otherwise an overwhelmingly strong exhibition and having thus been implicated, under the guise of art, in a mass act of complicit voyeurism, the lasting sense of EXPOSED is that as individuals and members of our contemporary image-saturated society, we have a responsibility to look critically, ethically and sensitively – and perhaps also to learn when to look away.

 

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