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We are all peeping Toms: 'Exposed' at the Walker

Walker curator Darsie Alexander
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Walker curator Darsie Alexander

Once again, the Walker Art Center offers up maddening superabundance. There are roughly 150 photographs in the exhibit "Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870," and that's just too much to write about, especially for a show with this theme. After all, Susan Sontag wrote an entire book about this sort of thing, "On Photography." I have just a few hundred words.

The exhibit, which originated in San Francisco at SFMOMA and in London at the Tate, really delights in examples of photography as pure peeping tom-ism — right in the middle of the first gallery is a display case filled with various hidden cameras that would look at home in a spy film; one is secreted in the handle of a cane. There are street photographers here, such as Jacob Riis, who photographed New York's slums using enormous cameras and primitive flash devices called "pistol lamps," which both resembled and sounded like their namesakes, and sometimes would have people leaping out of windows, afraid they were being shot at. You may have seen Jacob Riis' photographs in "How the Other Half Lives," his condemnation of America poverty from 1888; even if you haven't seen the book, many of his photographs are precisely reproduced in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York."

This section also has a series photograph by Hungarian photographer Brassaï, seemingly snapped from a vantage point in somebody's bedroom in France. The sequence shows a man slumped alongside a sidewalk, dead. A crowd gathers, and, when they disperse, the man is gone, presumably hauled off to be buried. What is most striking about this photograph is not its voyeurism — although there is that, as nobody in the photo, least of all the dead, knew they were getting their pictures taken — but its passivity. There is something almost cowardly about these photographs. The photographer doesn't merely observe, he observes from a distance, from hiding. He does not seek to help, nor does he move in to get any closer, or even move at all. Sontag took great interest in the idea that photography was anti-interventionist, that the act of taking a photo urges one to observe rather than intervene, and, with many of these street photographers, that was the case.

There is, for example, a photograph by Paul Strand, an American who actually did use a hidden camera like in a spy film, walking through New York taking startlingly intimate photographs of the city's residents without asking their permission or giving any indication he was going to film them. Like Riis, Strand was politically motivated — both were journalists who thought that photography could expose poverty and encourage a larger audience to address it. But they also helped create a style of photojournalism, later emulated by Weegee, also represented here, and photojournalists everywhere. When taking a photograph, they sought primarily to record, and especially to catch people unaware; their goals may have been interventionist, but their techniques were not.

"Exposed" curator Sandra P. Phillips
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
"Exposed" curator Sandra P. Phillips

This is not always the case, however. Photography is an unusually aggressive form — one of the curators, Sandra P. Phillips from SFMOMA, described how even the language of it seems aggressive. We "take" photographs. We "capture" a photograph. This is the language of theft, or of kidnapping. Photography does not just reflect our desires to see things, but can reflect, and record, our urge to see things that perhaps we shouldn't. The exhibit gets, at times, a bit porny — there is, as an example, a man in a rubber fetish suit by Robert Mapplethorpe (accompanied by a sketch of the same image by Patti Smith), and there are examples of cameras used as actual peeping-Tom devices. There is a piece by Mitch Epstein from 1998 that was taken through a New York window, and shows two lovers from the waist down, engaged in coitus on their floor. This is a room full of intrusions, such as a Yoko Ono's notorious film in which she had a cameraman silently chase an unsuspecting woman back to her apartment, ending with her collapsing in front of him, covering herself to escape the camera's persistent gaze; the film was titled "Rape."

Photo of Greta Garbo by Georges Dudognon, from "Exposed"
Courtesy of the Walker Art Center
Photo of Greta Garbo by Georges Dudognon, from "Exposed"

Ono's piece was, in part, a critique of paparazzi, and they abound in this exhibit. They peer at Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton through telephoto lenses in Italy. They snap pictures of Marilyn Monroe standing above a subway vent, the air from it blowing her skirt up, a moment that is as much a publicity stunt as a breach of intimacy. There is even a fake paparazzo here, Alison Jackson, who creates entirely fabricated images of celebrities, especially the royal family, using lookalikes. There are even celebrity photographers who seem to offer up commentary on the cult of the celebrity — which, in my view, is far more interesting than the celebrities themselves. Photographer Leonard McCombe took a picture of Kim Novak taking a seat on a train in 1956, but Novak is out of focus — he instead focuses on the men behind her, all staring at her.

The final two sections of the exhibit detail both violence and surveillance, which often go hand in hand. There are some exceptionally disquieting photos here, of executions and of the remains of the dead. One piece shows a lynching, with the jubilant killers posed in front, but the photograph itself is covered in a government-created black paint that only reveals its contents to a specific camera. To see the image, you must turn around to look at in in a monitor, as it is being filmed by a surveillance camera. Doing so puts you directly between the photograph and the camera, and so, along with the lynching, you see yourself, posed in front, as though you were one of the dead man's murderers.

It might seem odd if I say that an exhibit with 150 photographs feels incomplete, but to me it does. In a lot of ways, this is a retrospective of the voyeurism of the professional  — of journalists and artists. But photography had never entirely been in the hands of the professional, and, as the tools for making photograph became cheaper and cheaper, the amateurs took over. There is a digital camera on every cell phone nowadays, hidden as ingeniously as any spy camera. We have all become our own street photographers, our own paparazzi, our own journalists, our own pornographers. Entire phenomenons have risen as a result of the democratization of the camera, and although they may be out of the scope of the exhibit, having a show about the voyeuristic impulse of the photographer feels very dated without a discussion of upskirts shots, or sexting pics, or the fact that James Franco used his cellphone to take a photo of the audience for the Oscars as he was hosting the event. At that moment, he managed to simultaneously be celebrity and paparazzi, observed and voyeur. I am not sure what Sontag would have thought about this moment — there was nothing anti-interventionist about it. It was, instead, history being recorded, and the moment of its making, by the person who was making it.

This is a great exhibit, but it genuinely feels like a retrospective. I look forward to the same exhibit in a hundred years. At that time, the exhibit won't be filled with photographs by journalists or art photographers anymore. It will be filled with the pictures that you and I are making right now.

In fact, it didn't feel right to attend this exhibit without surreptitiously taking photographs of its curators, which I did from my iPad, which is a sort of device where, at any moment, you could be doing anything. Maybe I'm checking my email. Maybe I am taking notes. Maybe I am playing a video game, or writing a song, or reading an ebook. Or maybe I am taking a photograph.

I am probably taking a photograph.

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Comments (1)

Sounds very cool. I will definitely go see this.