WATCHING YOU WATCHING US; Tate Modern Makes Photography the Rare Focus of Its Next Show to Question the Role of Cameras, Surveillance and Voyeurism in Today's World

The Evening Standard (London, England), May 4, 2010 | Go to article overview

WATCHING YOU WATCHING US; Tate Modern Makes Photography the Rare Focus of Its Next Show to Question the Role of Cameras, Surveillance and Voyeurism in Today's World


Byline: Sue Steward

STEPPING off the once wobbly bridge and into the short lane leading to St Paul's Cathedral, I count eight CCTV cameras of different shapes and sizes staring down at me. I've just left an early preview of Tate Modern's major summer exhibition, a rare focus on photography titled Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, and am jolted by the realisation of how immured we are to the presence of cameras -- and brainwashed as to their importance.

Surveillance is one of the big ideas behind what promises to be a magnificent, intriguing, sometimes shocking, sometimes risque show of some 250 images, which comes here from MOMA San Francisco and is co-curated by the Tate's first dedicated curator of photography, Simon Baker. Briefed to bring more photography to Tate Modern, Baker has tailored this show, arranged before his appointment, adding work from a late Nineties documentary series by London photographer Jonathan Olley.

As well as surveillance, Exposed sets out to investigate the role of photography "in voyeuristic looking" and to consider the effects of technology on how we look and how we see. One area explored is Street Photography, a current favourite for competitions and student projects, which traces the story from the late 19thcentury detectives or social documenters using secret cameras in their pockets to today's diverse methods -- such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia's in his Heads, portraits of young Americans snapped unwittingly on remote-controlled cameras.

A section called Looking Out, Looking In places the visitor on both sides of the lens, entering into the realm of sexually explicit and implicit photographs associated with voyeurism. Here are included some astonishingly modern mid 19th-century nudes and erotica equipment such as stereoscopes viewed through eye-holes to lend extra titillation. "As soon as there was photography, there were pornographic photographs," writes Sandra S Phillips, the MOMA curator, in the comprehensively illustrated catalogue. She links early "naughty'' postcards to painters such as Degas who used photographs of naked women as reference, and the Surrealist experimenter Man Ray, who similarly relied on his muses' bodies for inspiration.

After Andy Warhol's clan opened things up sexually and made art-porn public, and Robert Mapplethorpe moved confidently into homoerotic photography, Warhol's heir, Nan Goldin, documented herself and friends in underground Eighties New York. Her controversial images were from an insider's position; often tender but always raw portraits with an honest explicitness that still influences photography today.

"Who's looking at who?" is a question running through this exhibition, and directly addressed in a cinematic 1946 shot by Vale Joel: three women checking their make-up in a one-way mirror at a New York cinema. From there, it's a short hop to the idea of celebrity and the paparazzi culture launched in the Fifties, when Tazio Secchiaroli buzzed around Rome on his Vespa in search of stars and famous faces.

The glamorous, intrusive, sometimes romantic images of the paparazzi now fetch high prices but the price paid by their subjects (especially Jackie Kennedy, hounded by Ron Galella) was far higher. Ambulance-chasing Weegee made celebrities from corpses and victims on New York streets, and Mapplethorpe stepped outside his usual zone with the close-up of Warhol's bullet-scarred torso.

The most chilling section in the exhibition, Witnessing Violence, is a difficult collection of images featuring the consequences of war and violence, and it selfconsciously feeds today's fascination with looking at suffering and death. While the first war photographs -- Roger Fenton's 1855 Crimea War work -- were sanitised for public viewing, there was little such delicacy in following years.

Nor with the electrocution of Ruth Snyder in 1928. The terrified handshake of a newspaper journalist using cameras strapped to his leg inadvertently blurred the image and created an abstract representation of the victim's agony. …

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