Exposed Exhibition Critique

Critique of the “Exposed” exhibition that took place at the Tate Modern in 2010.

The themes presented in the ‘Exposed’ exhibition were about voyeurism, surveillance and the camera, as dictated by its subtitle. The exhibit exposed the viewer to issues prevalent in society today regarding human rights and sometimes even human nature. The history of voyeurism itself in relation to media, government and our own use of the camera is a topic that is as relevant and controversial today as when it was first realized. I felt many of the issues dealt with could also follow a history of photography in relation to law and different themes explored by photographers as the camera reached broader audiences.

Separated into sections, the exhibition offered a plethora of different perspectives on the same theme with each premise having a relevance to its own history.

For the first section, “The Unseen Photographer”, the curator of photography, Simon Baker, chose to incorporate early examples of devices that were constructed to conceal the camera.  Additionally, were examples of works by photographers using these devices alongside contemporary photography of the same theme. Predominantly the section had images that depicted subjects being captured unawares, as the title alludes to.

The section related to one of the most controversial subjects for the contemporary photographer, that of privacy and copyright. Contemporary photographers who photograph individuals in public places will carry with them model release forms. This is because, under the Human Rights Act of 1998, publication and use of an image that was taken of an individual unawares is officially an infringement on that individual’s privacy in the UK. This explains why most photographers have a form for potential models to sign in order to avoid infringement of that very law.

Similar laws exist in almost all Western counties, a fact that caused some upheaval for American photographer Philip Lorca Dicorcia for his 2006 series “Heads”, some of which were on display. He was accused, by one of his subjects, of infringement of their privacy and religious rights (Jewish Orthodox) and claimed protection under the first amendment. However, DiCorcia won the legal battle, which resulted in a triumph for the art world and assures artistic freedom for photographers with a keen interest in street photography, at least in America, for now.

From this section one enters “Celebrity and the Public Gaze”, a section that offers a dual purpose: first as it pertains to budding photojournalists, and secondly how it relates to the media by exposing the viewer towards their own voyeuristic tendencies. Photographs were first published in newspapers and magazines in the late 1800’s, which made it possible for a massive public audience. Upon the mass distribution by the media, photographs were consumed by the public in what could be called a voyeuristic way. Indeed when we read an article about Paris Hilton going to jail (a photograph depicting this was on display) or when we watch a televised trial of Lindsey Lohan, for the most part we are all complaisant to our own acts.

The section “Voyeurism and Desire” was an interesting transition from “Celebrity and the Public Gaze” as the images shift quickly from documentary to eroticized photography. This was perhaps a choice made to expose our inherent human nature of image-obsessed voyeurism to our sex obsessed temperament. Although some of the images proved challenging to view, owing to their explicit nature, it was interesting to reflect on just how long themes of a sexual nature have been depicted. One example is the recently discovered 12,000-year-old cave art at Creswell Crags, which has artistic representations of female genitalia. Certainly, soon after the invention of the camera, photographers were using it to take erotic images. In the 1850’s, French photographer, Louis-Camille D’Olivier, took photographs of female nudes for art students to practice drawing the human figure. However innocent his intent, they had an alternative application, especially by his male students.

From one extreme to the next, the section entitled “Witnessing Violence” offered exactly that to its audience. As a societal culture there certainly seems to be an attraction and fascination with the macabre, whether it is trying to get a look at what happened in a road side accident or our multi-billion pound horror movie industry, many of us have strained our necks to have a second look. The most disturbing images in this section unsurprisingly pertained to war. On display and recently noted as one of the “10 Pictures That Changed The World” in the Telegraph Newspaper was Nick Ut’s famous Vietnam War photograph. The image depicts children running away from a Napalm bomb blast during the Vietnam War in the village of Trảng Bàng. An obvious choice by the Telegraph as it is an image that is shocking enough to prove eye opening for its viewers to the repercussions of nuclear war.

Encapsulating the many sub-themes of this exhibition must have proved difficult for Curator Simon Baker but he concludes the exhibit on a subject that most affects us all in our communities today: “Surveillance.” There has been an abundance of media on the subject, from the debate as to whether CCTV is useful and cost-effective, to the many uses (and misuses) of surveillance by the government in a plea for public safety. What the section effectively exposes are the many photographers who are using this form of photography in their own works. One example is Bruce Nauman who set up a camera in his own studio to film his actions, while other artists used the images retrieved from CCTV cameras to document their own movements.

The salient point is that photography has been used for a very long time for surveillance. Some of the earliest examples were photographs taken in the early part of the twentieth century by police officers of the imprisoned female suffragettes. But probably what made this topic most famous was George Orwell’s book “1984”. Orwell describes a society run on surveillance, and a government that both gains and retains its power by its stronghold over its citizens of which it achieves by documenting their every move. A theme that is not only prevalent in today’s society but also demonstrated in this show.

The exhibition successfully incorporated the sub-themes to its primary title, “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera”. The ideal of freedom, touted by the media and government officials, is a subject that the exhibition exposes as being misplaced. Whether we are just background figures in a holiday snapshot, or videotaped by a CCTV camera, one thing is for certain; we have been captured, recorded and exposed. Either comforting or distressing, it is a fact we have to face, and a fact this exhibition did well to show, and as George Orwell foretold in “1984”: “Big brother is watching you”.