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REVIEW: “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera” at the Tate Modern

Surveillance Surveyed:  “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera” at Tate Modern

28 May– 3 October 2010

Firstly, I have to say that I have been very excited to see this show. I remember sitting in Serge Plantureux’s upstairs office pad 3 years ago during Paris Photo, looking at execution images while comrade Robert Flynn Johnson (then yet to be a friend) spoke with Serge about surveillance images.

Serge had shown Robert and his friend mental asylum images made in a camp in Russia where they segregated the mentally ill into a separate community. Robert’s cohort at the time turned out to be no other than SFMOMA’s curator Sandra Gilman who organized this exhibition with Simon Baker, the new head curator of photography at the Tate. Baker’s premier is one of the reasons for such high expectations of this show “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera”.

This exhibition  is Baker’s first curatorial adventure within the institution. here is a need to show his intellectual interest in photography as well as providing a show of public draw. Not an easy task. The topic itself is something of a multi-headed hydra. Where many fields of practice in photography draw on various political economies of image making, this topic has the opportunity to reveal to its audience its own paradigms of living in a “Big Brother” state, especially here in England. The irony of this, of course, is that the survey is historical to a degree. This seems to make apparent while also rubbing in the viewer’s face, photography’s role in limiting our civil liberties. Eroded as expected, we pay money to ha­­ve this topic presented to us in an internationally recognized art institution. So in a sense, the bubble of irony is burst before one takes one step into the turbine hall. This is not to say the show smacks of indifference, the opposite actually holds true. The survey itself, though not inclusive of all types of voyeurism or surveillance, does take a look at sexuality and death with a less condemning eye than one would suspect. Given Baker’s interest in Surrealism, these two notions do not fall far from the academic tree.

The strongest points of this exhibition are in the content of historical images versus the contemporary image maker’s versions of surveillance.  In effect, the balance of vintage images (pre-1950) to that of post war and contemporary is about even from recollection. It has the benefit of not being a lopsided elephant in the sense that bases are covered, and we are not left yawning over the historical attributes, nor am I left annoyed that some recent graduate is getting undue attention.

In the second room (Room 2) of photographs I was confronted with two of the most beautiful Paul Strand platinum images from 1916. The images are within Paul Strand’s larger body of “Shot from the hip” photographs of New Yorkers. Most famously, and lacking (good move I think) is the iconic image of the “Blind” woman, which is considered an icon of photography no matter what the implications are of photographing a visually impaired person. The prints used in the exhibition, “Man”, “Five Points Square” and “Woman” are from the same body of work, but they are slightly less loaded than the image of the “Blind” woman. The print quality of each respective print is amazing and bode well for historical involvement for the rest of the exhibition.

Amongst various images by Lewis Hine are superb vintage images of New York city tenement dwellers by Jacob Riis, whose influential book on the matter led to social change in the cramped conditions of the poor in New York, as much as Hine’s images of child labour begat a massive campaign for the future of the youth as it was then. The idea of using these surveillance or insider images for social change is just one of surveillance photography’s positive contributions.

Further along in the exhibition, there is a slight change with the vintage works shown. We oscillate from historical imperative to one of artistic practice. In particular, Harry Callahan’s images of starkly illuminated faces of women create the crucible of the voyeuristic in photography. These images were made by Callahan as he walked the streets of Chicago taking quick snaps of unsuspecting strangers. Mirroring these images are also Walker Evans hidden camera photographs made on the NYC subway and Garry Winogrand’s images from “Women are Beautiful”. This series in particular interests me in the sense that the photographer as voyeur is completely obvious and explicit.

The notion of artistically categorized images exhibited is a nuance in this show as they stem from the photographer’s actual desires (male or not) and the camera’s ability to make permanent the retinal or libidinal desires of the photographer/artist. In this capacity, I want to point out that there is less material of an anonymous or personal type here. Many of the image makers presented in this show are of the historically mentioned or artistically culled. What is missing is any sense of the private sphere. For example, intimate sexual couplings or family events hidden from the outside world on points or self censorship or practicality and recorded by Polaroid are a sadly missing.

The Polaroid camera by its very insistence produces images of a private & personal nature allow for the practitioner to send, receive, and make permanent a catalogue of experiences and moments once reserved for the professional community or serious amateur. There is no need for developing lab or the inclusion of its workers receiving the personal image. It does differ from say Polaroids of a loved one’s birthday or a recorded holiday which would be shared later in albums, etc. By leaving out images by anonymous Polaroid makers, the exhibit fails in terms of not only topical interest (Polaroid is still selling the collection next month) but also the most basic forms of photographic inter-communication and later re-contextualization of the amateur photographer. Alfred Kinsey would be vastly disappointed.

The images while fed to us in an exhibition guise are in need of the public’s own personal interaction with voyeurism and surveillance. Whereby it is ok for the institutions and artist to participate and add that extra level of irony, the public unless recorded, does not participate much in this exhibition save for one room.

There is a room that does play with the idea of interaction and oddly enough “relational aesthetics” (Bourillard). In Room 10, which is classified as “Witnessing Violence”, there are amongst many vintage images of the American civil war, William Saunders’s images at a Chinese beheading, and very rare images of concentration camps. A CCTV/convenience store camera is set high up on the wall, so as to be unobserved by the gallery goers. Participants are allowed to stand in front of the monitor and be recorded. Unfortunately, the room that this contraption is set in is a side gallery and the process is slightly out of context due to the historical images beside it. What I give in points for interaction, I must take away in slightly awkward exhibition design. Oddly enough, while the lecture was being given by Mr. Baker and Ms. Gilman, there was some sort of vast disclaimer about the room which housed the contraption. I was met with “we decided to make this room off to the side to let people make their own decisions regarding the viewing of material”. I found this a little bit difficult to speculate on before entering, as I had just viewed a series of images of people falling to their deaths due to a Fire at the Ambassador Hotel by Italian photographer Marcello Geppetti. The images were incredibly graphic renditions of people jumping from the hotel windows to their deaths below. All I could think of was the 9/11 footage of the peppered streaks falling down the building that September morning nearly a decade ago. It did not make viewing the images in the supposed “difficult viewing” room any less affecting. I just think that if you are going to go about disclaimers, there is no point to keeping it in one room, unless we are taking images of the holocaust as more affecting than that of serial suicide photographs. It was suggested to me that this may be a way for Tate to cover their own bases of public responsibility by offering a way out for children or persons of a queasy nature an exit. I think in this respect, I feel a slight bit of remorse at the suggestion as it would negate any real responsibility for showing tough subject matter. Not to mention who decides what is “over the top” in an exhibition featuring suicides, pregnant heroin abusers, and general misanthropy found in the minutiae of violence interspersed throughout the main halls of the exhibition.

Some of the modern or contemporary images of note are Phillip Lorca DiCorcia’s images of “Heads” made in New York City. I remember buying this book some time ago from which the series is drawn. The basic principal is that an unsuspecting person walking the sidewalks of NYC in the late 90’s/early 2000’s would step on a censor which triggered a flash. The resulting image was then recorded by a telephoto lens some distance away. The results are interesting bordering on commendable. The images show normal, average, pock marked, obese, or just  everyday people walking the streets of New York, but when the flash is applied and the image is blown up to a large scale, the sitters take on a sense of purpose, even glamour. This practice of raising “Breughel’s peasants” to a more elevated level is a clear act of trespass. It simultaneously says “this could be made better” while also trying to capitalize on the everyday. This is a hard line to walk and I am not sure from a personal stance whether it is unjust or just really clever. It begs more questions which the whole nature of a show like this is supposed to be about.

This notion of pseudo paparazzi like image making does however take a backseat to the real thing. In Room 4 titled “Celebrity and the Public Gaze” are an amount of images by actual paparazzi masters like Ron Gallela and Tazzio Secchiaroli. Gallela is likely the more notorious of the two as the photographer’s normal Studio 54 pop shots are left behind for his intensive and intrusive images of Jackie-O on his “Summer in Skorpios, Jackie Taking a Swim”, 1970 images. Apparently, the result of Gallella’s career chasing and nuanced photographic investigation of Onassis led to an eventual court litigation in which the photographer had to by order of law, stop hounding Miss Onassis. Gallela has fashioned a career out of the often pernicious worlds of the public and private document.

The above being said, a slightly more whimsical series of prints by Tazzio Secchiaroli depicting Anita Ekberg and Husband Anthony Steel lead to a semi-comical end as Secchiaroli manages to photograph an increasingly angered Steel frame by frame even after he loses his cool and chases another paparazzo away.


Moving further into contemporary practice, we have what I perceive as the obligatory Sophie Calle images. Though quite fun and very much on the mark for the exhibition, I can’t help but find the work a decade too late to be really effective. That and with the recent Whitechapel show, I just feel oversaturated with her work, no matter how good it is/was. The works are different than Alison Jackson’s staged images of Royalty and celebrity. I find these images though more populist, to be a better take on the idea of the voyeur than that of Calle’s. With Jackson, I appreciate the amount of work that goes into the single image produced. Instead of relying on the potential environment for exhibition that Calle high ceiling, “stack em’ high n wide” whitespaces, these images can be read as one offs, which makes the point of celebrity fascination and the staged image most poignant. What Jackson’s works miss in critical (relational aesthetics again) aptitude, they make up for in popular imagination, which is not a small benefit. These images also present an interesting parallel to Giuseppe Primoldi’s late 19thcentury photographs of celebrities. In particular, the image of Degas coming out of a Pissoir/Vespasian in 1889 fully relieved.

Speaking more on the topic of obligatory entries for this exhibition, I find Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” in slide format as it was originally intended a necessary inclusion. Although, and I could be well wrong here, I believe the initial soundtrack was a bit more mixed. What I heard in the gallery was a mishmash of religious or very drawn bits of music. Bleak may be the right word. I remember seeing a similar slide show of Goldin’s at Pompidou last year which was terrible due to the warbling soundtrack. At any rate, I enjoyed seeing the slide show, as it was pertinent. In this same vein of “gotta have it”, is Mary Alpern’s images from her series “Dirty Windows”. Being a fan of the series myself, I don’t have much to say apart from that it is was expected and looked great in the show.

On a perhaps less obvious front were contemporary works by Jonathan Olley whose images of the English architectural presence in Northern Ireland is an epiphany and some of the only images which really show the military industrial complex as it relates to surveillance. Though not absolute as a “theatre of war”, the images are certainly reflective of the issues of surveillance, the camera, and its control for a population. It is scary stuff and does remind the viewer of the unconscious humanitarian issues that comes part and parcel with the industrialized camera.

I just want to note here that there was little emphasis placed on the idea of borderlands or grey areas of surveillance and the way the camera handles human traffic (legit or not) across sieve like pieces of land tracts. There was very little mentioned on Mexico/American border patrols or the Icon of 20th century Political divide as seen on, around, or above the Berlin Wall. It simply did not factor. As a collector who has images of the guard towers at Check Point Charley, etc, I can only say this was a major absence as was the archival images from Stasi informants, etc. These images should have been front and central for this exhibition and sadly, they were not. This is a slight bone of contention for me as most of the 20th century’s development has to do with this infrastructure of militarized technology and population control through image and commerce.

Among the fair to mention and disappointing exclusions for this show are a number of formats and historical movements that remain uncovered for now. I will try and simplify this outgoing list as to put a small underlining checklist to the report card of “to be improved upon”.

1. Berlin Wall, Communism, Stasi

a) Although this is shored up a bit with images of Soviet spies around the world

2. Medical or invasive surgical images would solidify the most internal or least easily photographed personal spaces as would x-rays! Images of the ASYLUM.

3. Border Patrols

a) Mexico/America

b )North Korea/South Korea

c) Communist borders

4. Nudist retreats

a) Where is the Arbus?

b) German Naturist movement?

5. Gated Communities and Utopian communities.

6. Polaroid images of a personal nature

7. New Media

a) there is not one single computer or webcam in the whole show, let alone YouTube, social networking, or other forms of tenuous privacy topics.

8. Google Maps anyone?

This missing element, like that of the Berlin wall really fails. As this is not exactly an overall chronological summary of surveillance and voyeurism, the fact that these elements were not included is a bit discouraging I have to admit. Though many of these topics are not easy and do raise further questions leading outside of the main theme, I do think the inclusion of a few would have been necessary.

9. Baghdad Calling.

Geert van Kesteren’s work with collated cell phone images, etc of a wartime Iraq are incredibly important on the normative role of surveillance or seeing from the outside IN. This sort of practical application for a populist reclamation of photography went undigested and I feel somehow cheated of its exclusion.

In conclusion, I found the show informative, nearly graceful in historical application, and genuinely interesting. It had its shortcomings, but overall most bases were covered, there was ample work, but there were inevitable problems aside from the political discourse. Certain exclusions of material were felt quite heavily, but it does not capsize the greater good. I commend the Tate, Simon Baker, and Sandra Gilman for the most part. The topic of surveillance is incredibly important in a world full of tools making our lives more compacted, more notated, and more illustrated for the better and worse. This general infrastructure of display captures the camera’s ability to protect as well as serve.

Text by Brad Feuerhelm


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