Thursday 24 June 2010

Look who’s watching now

Exposed: Voyeurism, surveillance and the camera, Tate Modern, London

How often do you look at someone and, just from one look, know them in some way?  I don’t very often, despite the many people I meet on a daily basis. This exhibition, therefore, caught me by surprise. As soon as you walk in you see people, really see them. Big, up close and personal – but they don’t know you’re staring!  And as you walk around you’re introduced to hundreds more souls.  All I wanted to do was look at them, not away.

Exposed documents a multitude of photographers who, in pursuing their craft, have captured the authenticity of the human experience - as social documentary and testament to the rich quality of human life. As many of the photos were taken without the knowledge of the person in the image, and being an advocate of personal privacy, the irony of enjoying the exhibition was not lost on me.

Other reviewers, such as Adrian Searle and Blake Morrison , introduce you to the extensive number of works and the wide-ranging and challenging content of the exhibition. Tensions abound with themes around the unseen photographer; Celebrity and the public gaze; Voyeurism and desire; Witnessing violence and finally Surveillance.

Fundamentally we are asked to consider the propriety of crossing boundaries into people’s personal lives. There is a triangle to square here: the perspective of the photo’s subject, the photographer and then the audience or consumer of the image.

One consideration then is placing ourselves in the position of the subject. Searle makes an obvious but necessary point in his review. Given that we increasingly choose to live much of our lives in public, on social networking sites, for example, is the protection of the private individual really the issue it once was?  And given this, it may also follow that we may be less likely to be too concerned when the private lives of others are put in the public domain. Being out there in public is becoming the default. Maybe we should just relax.

The first three rooms at the start of the exhibition however set up a feeling of unease with such a stance. Populated by photos spanning 120 years, the view of the subject comes to the fore. Confronted with the individual, putting aside a concern for privacy feels less comfortable especially knowing these images were generally taken without consent of the subject. Is this then an invasion of personal privacy?

In one case we find out an individual in a photograph taken by Philip-Lorca diCorcia took their objections to court, but lost their case. However, there is a slight assumption that the subject is likely to object to any photo taken without consent.

In general, it’s not obvious that populations in the past would have been quite so sensitive to being caught on film - especially where social observation rather than exposure of the individual was the motivation. It is likely that our contemporary suspicions and cynicism of how images today might be misused informs how we now regard such images and we are in danger of reading history backwards. We possibly now regard the taking of such pictures as a form of identity theft, maybe more akin in attitude to the Hopi Indians of the late 1800s documented in the exhibition.

A second aspect of the exhibition that is illuminating is how the content of many of the photos help define what is public and what is private space. Before we consider the issue of propriety, we need to establish whether we agree on where the boundaries between public and private are set and why these are important.

Setting aside the division of the exhibition into the large number of distinct rooms, I considered only three themes - what is truly private space; where does private butt up against a range of social activities; and what is public?  Viewed in this way, the great size of the exhibition is a real strength.

What is truly your own private space?  Is this the space of a lodger in a communal bunk house, at home or in a park making love, or can it be on a bus pondering the day ahead? What about those social but private liaisons?  How do you regard the strip joint, couple’s kissing in the cinema or a Wall Street brothel. And what about what’s public - anarchists in city square, assassinated individuals, dead soldiers on the battlefield?

In trying to clarify the differences, we also start to reveal why the distinctions of these spaces matter. Society seems to have lost an understanding of why each is important for the rounded development of individuals and their contribution to wider society. Only by remarking these lines might it be possible to afford each more respect - and for us to each take personal responsibility for not crossing boundaries inappropriately.

For me, the Nan Goldin ‘The ballad of sexual dependency’ (Room 8) was the distillation of the private at its most intense and beautiful. Comprising of a slide show of hundreds of photographs taken over nearly thirty years and set to music, we see friends and family with their guard down in familiar and informal settings. The intimacy captured in this private is palpable to the extent you feel you could easily be sat at the bar drinking with these people. Informality and lack of performance seems to be the defining factor. Such informality couldn’t be sustained if people didn’t feel at ease – even with black eyes and people much the worse for ware, trust and friendship exude from the images.  Along with fun come pain, fuck ups, mistakes and bad behaviour - and is, no doubt, also a place for self reinvention when required.  It is the place to work out who you might want to be but the place where you don’t have to be that thing, 24/7. Goldin captures it all. It’s a fragile thing, unlikely to stand too much public scrutiny.

This particular room sets a vantage point from which to view the rest of the exhibition. As soon as social activities move out of trusted circles, even those semi-private activities people would want to keep secret from more than a few others, formality starts to assert itself and people start to be more on their guard (Rooms 5 & 6). The exhibition shows how this manifests itself in forms of more self-conscious adoption of personas - of make-up (of e.g. the prostitutes) and clothes (of e.g. the transvestites) and in behaviours and affectations. It is a private space but one where lack of familiarity results in greater role play and more formality.

And there is finally the truly public (Rooms 10, 11 & 14) where we meet as society to work and participate in wider activities that make up communities, cities, workplaces. And of course there is politics and war. It is also the area where public authority seeks to invade and monitor private or public activity that might challenge the status quo in some form. And the photographer also watches the watchers. Formality is the defining feature of public space. This is the place where you act for public good and conduct and behaviour develop accordingly.

So formality, the actor or adopted persona and the guarded tend to come through as important in defining the space between public and private. Of course, there are the grey areas. Defining the private and public helps clarify the shades of grey, for example, around celebrity, suicide and death.

As much as this exhibition is thoroughly enjoyable, it does feel strangely remote, more historical record or removed from our own lives. Many of the people inhabiting the photos are ghosts of the past or from ‘elsewhere’. Given the extent of surveillance in the UK, it is odd our contemporary UK population is largely absent from the exhibition.  To what extent do we want to really see the many people we live amongst in the way we see those New Yorkers taken by diCorcia, not as digital imprints produced from CCTV, but their authentic selves?  Do we have the same feeling of unease regarding the photographing and filming of young people having their own personal intimate encounters on the streets of Blackpool and Newcastle out on a Saturday night? 

It is ironic that capturing the essence of people on film has often been achieved only by people not knowing they are being photographed. Trust, as with Nan Goldin, or maybe a photographer like Nick Waplington who photographed people like Janet and Clive from Nottingham’s Broxtowe housing estate in the mid 1990’s, is the alternative but also apparently a rarity. So it’s definitely a conundrum for the artist and without easy resolution.

In sum, this is a thought provoking exhibition and well worth a visit.

Until 3rd October

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