Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, Tate Modern, London

The photographer as unwelcome voyeur is a stereotype become fact thanks to modern-day concerns about grubby paedophiles taking the souls of children through a telephoto lens and terrorists who stalk their targets with high quality cameras only to return later with bombing in mind. The absence of facts does nothing to diminish the apparent fear and that’s before we get to more possibly legitimate forms – street, candid, celebrities caught unawares. People may feel dirty but they still want to look. And of course today there is an official look back – policeman who bring their own cameras to the demo and the CCTV that forever looks on, possibly passively but possibly not. This is a world of watching and the watched. And into this world comes Tate Modern’s latest photography exhibition: Exposed.

Last year, The Guardian published on its front page a photostat showing a set of ID-style photos that the police were using to identify possible troublemakers at the G20 protestors. A modern-day infringement of our rights – so it’s something of a shock to come across an exact replica from 100 years ago of ID shots of sufragettes compiled by the British police to make it easier to spot the damsels who would cause them distress. The more things change, eh? Similarly the shock of Jacob Riis‘s work – using the height of technology (flashguns, basically) to highlight the squalid conditions of the ignored urban poor crammed too many to a room in appalling conditions. 130 years on this looks far too familiar and the argument about where reportage ends and exploitation begins remains unresolved.

Alongside the shock of the old looking too much like the shocking new the exhibition breaks down across several themes: voyeurism, desire, celebrity, violence and surveillance. It’s an intelligent survey, albeit one prone to a bit much grand narrative sweeping, that never allows even the exhibition goer off the hook from the charge of exploitation in our determination to see things we should not see.

Obviously there are many, many quality images and sets (to use a flickr term) but some stand out. Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency is almost unwatchable in its totality – presented here as a slideshow with soundtrack – as image after image of grim hope and despair pours by. Paul Strand’s image of the BLIND woman still stands out. Brassai’s gaze as we are shown both death and sex in Paris is both neutral and revealing. Then there is my personal favourite – and it has the best title – is Leonard McCombe’s “Eyes right is perfectly excecuted with almost military precision by dining car males aboard New York bound 20th Century Limited as Kim Novak eases into a seat“. Try saying that after a drink or two.

Exposed is important – that much is certain. It marks a certain maturity in exhibiting photography in that, although we are still cursed by the need to show 150 years of development every time, an argument can be made without throwing the kitchen sink at it. This is the first such exhibition I’ve left thinking about what else could have been included to enhance or subtly alter the narrative. How different to Street and Studio where pretty much every photograph of the previous century was included. It’s also obviously important because it’s a useful disection of voyeuristic photography. These photographs intrigue because of the stories behind them – even as we squirm to avoid becoming complicit. In the exhibition there is little distinction between high and low art, between state and amateur surveillance. All are guilty for creating this world of watching and mutual suspicion. We should possibly just sit back and enjoy the show.

And to cap it all, it even has an excellent catalogue.


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