Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance
and the Camera Since 1870
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Benjamin Lowy, Iraq Perspectives II #8, 2003–07; chromogenic print; 13 x 20 inches; © Benjamin Lowy; courtesy the artist
Garry Winogrand, New York, 1969; gelatin silver print; 11 x 14 inches; collection SFMOMA, fractional and promised gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein; © Estate of Garry Winogrand; courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera since 1870 pursues an almost self-evident claim regarding the potential pleasure and invasiveness of the gaze, particularly as captured in photography and film media. However, in its geographical and historical breadth, the exhibition, mounted at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art by senior curator of photography Sandra Phillips and Tate Modern curator of photography Simon Baker, may provoke as many interpretations as it would seem to provide. Complete ambivalence towards the status of the photograph as fine art or mere cultural product is in every way a strength here. Regardless of the fame of their producers or provenance, the over 250 works on view satisfy and encourage the gluttonous interest of viewers currently weaned on the voyeuristic panopticon of TMZ, Homeland Security, Chatroulette and the iPhone.
Included here are well-known and sometimes well-worn works by Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Paul Strand, Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lee Miller, Vito Acconci, Thomas Demand and others. Drawing on both the Getty Collection and the resources of SFMOMA, curators Phillips and Baker place these iconic works among a wealth of documentary, journalistic and state-produced photographs, videos and film stills in five thematically organized rooms: “The Unseen Photographer,” “Voyeurism and Desire,” “Celebrity and the Public Gaze,” “Witnessing Violence” and “Surveillance.” Acconci, an artist who pursued stalking and even lechery to conceptual ends, is a natural choice. His Following Piece (1969) feels particularly sinister in the “Surveillance” room, reading as a product of collective paranoia alongside the Pentagon’s photographs of anti-Vietnam demonstrations (Jimmie Duncan, Anti-Vietnam Demonstration, 1967) and Harold Eugene Edgerton’s aerial photograph of the Pentagon itself (Pentagon, 1940s). Throughout Exposed, clever pairings of the conceptual and the documentary reveal historical dimensions to artists’ work, while also recharging images often neutralized by their iconic nature.
At all turns, Exposed is flush with images of documentary significance and striking visual appeal: Hard-faced British suffragettes! The flaming Hindenburg! Anita Ekberg’s mythic torso! Rows of anonymously accredited and tremendously magnetic works appear in every room. Within “Celebrity and the Public Gaze,” the press photographer appears as both an extension of a collective avarice and an independent actor with personal obsessions. An image by infamous paparazzo Ron Galella of Jackie Onassis running across a field (What Makes Jackie Run? Central Park, New York City, October 4, 1971, 1971) is followed by a Galella image of her on the cover of Life Magazine (February 12, 1971); one personal, the other salable, both are products of Galella’s decades-long legal and lens-based negotiation of the boundaries of personal privacy. The curatorial subheadings don’t account for such distinctions of audience, motive and propriety, especially within the oeuvre of a single photographer. But this seeming insufficiency to provide a totalizing view is ultimately to the exhibition’s and its viewers’ benefit.
In “Voyeurism and Desire” an anonymous photograph of a backseat copulation by the Kinsey Institute (Photographer Unknown, Untitled, ca. 1945) provides a counterpoint to Robert Frank’s series, The Americans (1958), hanging nearby. The Kinsey image is one Frank would not have taken, or at least could not have published. But the Kinsey photograph shares Frank’s documentary style: the size of the print, the angled shot, the blur of movement with framing askew. The Kinsey photograph is a reminder that Frank was also a voyeur, for a personal if not scientific end, and, in turn, that the pleasure of working for the Kinsey Institute was not always in the accomplishment of its objective ends.
Leonard McCombe, [Eyes right is executed with almost military precision by dining car males aboard New York bound 20th Century Limited as Kim Novak eases into a seat], 1959; gelatin silver print; 9¼ x 13½ inches; International Center of Photography, New York, The LIFE Magazine Collection, 2005; © International Center of Photography, The LIFE Magazine Collection, 2005/Getty Images
Shizuka Yokomizo, Stranger No. 2, 1999; chromogenic print; 31 ¼ x 31 ¼ inches; SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Shizuka Yokomizo
Both “Voyeurism and Desire” and the room entitled “The Unseen Photographer” take their curatorial aims and much of their roster almost directly from the pages of Susan Sontag’s 1977 collection of essays On Photography. As Sontag’s argument goes, even Walker Evans was never far removed from the flâneur, the pervert, the flasher or the stalker. Rather than the “decisive moment” of the roving photographer, it is the importance of the subject’s responsive moment—the subject’s ability to collect then re-present himself to the lens—that comes to the fore here. Exposed makes materially evident that many of these early- and mid-century American documentary masters worked deliberately to conceal their photographic act. Alongside the images of Evans, Frank, Jacob Riis, Garry Winogrand, Weegee and others, the curators display compact SLR models, miniscule cameras lodged in shoes and canes as well as the telephoto lenses of stealth photography.
Perhaps the one weak moment in the show is the collection of works categorized as “Witnessing Violence.” There are arguably few curatorial strategies that warrant presenting Robert Mapplethorpe’s higher-than-high-art nudes, part of “Voyeurism and Desire,” in visual proximity with the The Electrocution of Ruth Snyder (1928) or the press photography of The Nazis Burn the Living (Anonymous, 1945) in a nearby room. With such leveling juxtapositions the show, and this room in particular, fails to acknowledge a historical progression of our negotiation with the invasive possibilities of the camera; the numbness of the present does not always do justice to the images of the past. An exception here is Lee Miller’s photograph The suicided daughter of the Bürgermeister of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany, April 19, 1945 (1945), which provides a stronger image of violence, and one closer to the silent work of surveillance, than many of the overt images of bodily carnage on display. Against better judgment I was reminded of Gustave Courbet’s sleepers: in Miller’s image the ageless motif of a sleeping girl and the pleasure of an unaware subject collide with a knowledge of violence in a photograph taken with characteristic attention to composition and light. Such an association, as well as a small photograph found here from Edouard Dégas (nu feminine mettant ses bas, 1895), suggest that the camera has no exclusive right to the act and pleasures of voyeurism—it has perhaps only superseded figurative painting as proof of the temporary intimacy of artist and subject.
Careful attention and almost care for the subject of surveillance make Shizuka Yokomizo’s Stranger no 1 (1998) and Stranger no 2 (1999) exhibition standouts. To create the series the artist wrote to her eventual subjects anonymously, proposing that each individual turn on his lights, open the blinds and present himself to be photographed on a stated date and time. The photographed subject’s moment of response is given, even protracted, yet one man still addresses Yokomizo’s lens in boxer shorts, on the phone. Yokomizo’s work uses the visual rhetoric of voyeurism found throughout the show—a shot into a lit room from the darkened street—but as a form of participatory surveillance it recalls our unprecedented tolerance and active solicitation of the eyes of others, a fear of being seen replaced by the fear of becoming invisible.
Lauren Hamer is a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.