“Exposed”: a lack of exposure… September 2010.

We went to see “Exposed” at Tate Modern, an exhibition of photographs and videos exploring photography’s relationships with voyeurism and surveillance. I found it a strange exhibition, lacking in cohesion: few of the photographs seemed worthy of exhibiting, and those were from early in the development of photography. Given the large numbers of photographers and photographs which could have been included, the omissions seemed critical.

Photography is necessarily voyeuristic. Looking through a camera – particularly older cameras – is like looking through a window. Since photography was invented, it has been used to capture candid scenes, with or without the subjects knowledge or involvement.

In “Rear Window”, Hitchcock probably said more about the relationship between photography, the photographer and their subjects than this show did: the desire to frame the world, to record others’ behaviour; to catch an image. (And, in “Rear Window”, a criminal.) And of course, in the movie, the audience are themselves acting as voyeurs.

And so was the audience at this show. A surprising number of people looking at the pictures on the wall had cameras strung around their necks, as if they were about to contribute to it. One exhibit incorporated an image of the viewers watching it (superimposed on an archive photographs of a lynch mob in the southern USA).

This show did raise serious issues: the extent to which the viewer is complicit in the photographer’s action; whether a photographer is responsible for what they see, and whether a subject’s willingness to participate removes the photographer’s responsibility; when does a photograph become one of the people instead of the environment; are there things which shouldn’t be photographed? And so on, and on.

It is of course an interesting subject. But, for me, the issues weren’t fully explored, and were weakened by the frankly poor quality of the pictures themselves. Artistically, they were lacklustre: the images didn’t have the power, as photographs, to convey the complex ideas the curators were projecting onto them. There were more interesting pictures by the photographers – why the particular images were chosen by the curator wasn’t clear.

The more modern works left me cold: too knowing, perhaps too conceptual. There was a very entertaining video of an artist’s dialogue with a surveillance camera (he held up signs asking questions; the camera nodded or shook its “head” in response) [sorry – I can’t remember the artist!], and the discourse on the role of the security forces and military was interesting. The role of the media – and even the internet (tagging of pictures on flickr and Facebook, for instance) – was barely covered (apart from a look at celebrities); whilst the whole exhibition was about privacy, it didn’t really seem like it was actually examined.

There was no examination of the extent to which everyone’s snaps – our holiday pictures, pictures of our children, for example – are intrusive, whatever the subjects’ complicity. An examination of how our attitudes to voyeurism and privacy have changed since the advent of photography would have been interesting, too. Now that everyone’s pictures sit on the web and we move through cities under the ever-watchful panopticon of CCTV, do we perceive the public and the private differently?

Almost uniformly, the subjects weren’t smiling; indeed, they looked pretty miserable. This is understandable in some cases – many of the pictures examined the living conditions imposed by poverty, for instance – but it was most marked in Nan Goldin’s pictures of New York’s social scene in bars and parties. Shown as a slide show, these hundreds of images featured willing participants who mostly looked bored or miserable. That is probably the point: the opposite of fun. But generally, people smile; I go to bars, I take photographs at parties: people smile.

But not in New York. And not in “Exposed”.

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