2.7 / Review

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870

By Genevieve Quick December 10, 2010

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870, at SFMOMA, is an ambitious exhibition that examines 140 years of photography through five categories: “The Unseen Photographer,” “Voyeurism and Desire,” “Celebrity and the Public Gaze,” “Witnessing Violence,” and “Surveillance.” The exhibition cites 1871, the year the gelatin dry plate was invented, as the onset of the modern photographic era. This development was shortly followed by the emergence of micro cameras small enough to be concealed in unassuming objects of everyday life, such as a shoe or cane. In addition to exploring the power dynamics and privacy issues of voyeurism and surveillance, the exhibition raises questions about a visitor’s relationships to the photograph, viewing, and the socio-historic context in which the images were made and the ways they are viewed today.

The first gallery in the exhibition is dedicated to “The Unseen Photographer;” it features two vitrines displaying some of the cameras and equipment that have allowed photographers of the past and present to discreetly shoot images. They include a shoe camera (1920–30), the Leica IIIf (1951), the Nikon 400m Nikkor ED lens (1975), and a Motorola Razr (2005). The earlier of these devices set the trajectory for security cameras, Webcams, and the nanny-cam. But more than that, they have also altered our perceptions of privacy and the perimeters of private and public domains, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Western countries were becoming increasingly urbanized and subject to greater visibility and municipal surveillance. 

The candid and covert images of criminality, beauty, and aberrance in “The Unseen Photographer” reveal the expanded possibilities that the portable camera and telephoto lens have provided photographers by giving them the ability to shoot images without the self-consciousness that the camera typically imposes upon its subjects. Moreover, “The Unseen Photographer” also explores the photographer’s role in capturing images from which we’re culturally told to avert our gaze (e.g., a legless man pushing himself on a skateboard, embracing lovers, etc.); this conflicts with the museum’s and photography’s usual directive to look.

As the exhibition title suggests and the abundant signage warns, Exposed delivers some of the predicted titillation and horror of sex and violence, but most works seem rather tame by contemporary standards. The historical images of the horrors of Dachau and the Vietnam War and the sexually explicit images of Robert Mapplethorpe and Nobuyoshi Araki are less shocking than they were when originally produced. While the filter of time and familiarity, the abstraction of black-and-white photography, and the softer focus and smaller scale of earlier photographic processes have made these images less shocking, they remain commanding in terms of formal qualities and content.

Tazio Secchiaroli. Anita Ekberg and Husband Anthony Steel, Vecchia Roma, 1958; gelatin silver print; 11 11/16 x 14 5/8 in. Courtesy of SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase. © Tazio Secchiaroli/David Secchiaroli.

Alison Jackson. The Queen plays with her Corgies, from the series Confidential, 2007; chromogenic print; 16 x 12 in. Courtesy the Artist and M+B Gallery, Los Angeles. © Alison Jackson.

By not making a distinction between fine-art photography and photojournalism, the exhibition includes iconic images that document pivotal historic moments. While voyeurism and surveillance suggest a pleasure, power, or thrill, they are equally about being an unseen viewer. As such, as viewers of photography, we see vicariously through the photographers and implicate ourselves in the voyeuristic act. However, this relationship becomes more complicated when we are presented with iconic photographs. In particular, Eddie Adam’s Viet Cong Officer Executed (1968) is an iconic image whose status may actually obligate visitors to visually study it in order to know it more thoroughly than our cultural memory has allowed us to. While many of the images in Exposed were not created as artworks and would be at home in a history museum, their placement in SFMOMA shifts their context away from being purely pedagogical and toward establishing the cultural context for artistic practice.

By presenting the images thematically, as opposed to chronologically, Exposed elegantly lays the groundwork for a contemporary photographic process that frequently borrows or subverts historical or cultural precedents. In particular, in the “Celebrity and the Public Gaze” section, two photographs from Alison Jackson’s Confidential series sit in relation to Tazio Secchiaroli’s 1950s paparazzi photographs. In Jackson’s The Queen plays with her Corgies (2007) and Jack Road Rage (2007), Jackson has hired celebrity look-alikes of Queen Elizabeth and Jack Nicholson to stage seemingly candid paparazzi photos of the celebrities in their private settings or being ill-behaved. Jackson plays with our voyeuristic desire to see celebrities in their fiercely guarded unscripted private lives.

In the final gallery of the exhibition, which is dedicated to surveillance, are two photographs from Shizuka Yokomizo’s Stranger series (1998–2000) and one from Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads series. With the Stranger series, Yokomizo sent letters to strangers asking for their participation in a project that entailed allowing the photographer to lurk outside the subjects’ home to photograph them. While the subjects’ participation may suggest a degree of exhibitionism, it also suggests an eroded sense of privacy and surrender to the surveillance or voyeurism that proliferates in contemporary society. DiCorcia’s street photography series raised issues of privacy in the public domain when an unknowingly photographed subject sued the artist. While much of the exhibition is dedicated to modern black-and-white photography, the curators conclude the exhibition with works that question our willingness or inability to surrender our privacy.


Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870 is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through April 17, 2011.

Comments ShowHide