Voyeurism and surveillance at the Tate Modern

The Exposed Exhibit will continue until October. Photo Credit: Elisabeth Fischer

The Exposed Exhibit will continue until October. Photo Credit: Elisabeth Fischer

By Lilly LeClair and Elisabeth Fischer

London’s Tate Modern, a museum known for pushing boundaries in the art world, opened a new exhibit last Friday called Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera. The multi-media display covers 14 rooms in the converted power station and runs in conjunction with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Through eroticism, celebrity, war and instances of surveillance all over the world, the photographic images featured have been taken without the permission of the subjects depicted. The idea is said to challenge common ideas of privacy and propriety.

“The exhibition is really well collected,” said Vibeke Luther, 31, animator from London. “It is important to ask why are people interested in such things. Why are human beings drawn to filthy violence?”

The museum explained that there have been few attempts to examine the history of what might be called invasive looking, and the exhibit aims to fill this void with images dating back to the 1870’s, when cameras moved out of the studios and on to the street, up to the present day.

The photographer Philip-Lorca DiCorcia has three large “Head” photos displayed in the first room. Hidden behind scaffolding, the artist used an artificial flash to illuminate unsuspecting New York City passers-by in 2001. Four years later in 2006, one of the subjects challenged the work as an infringement of privacy but the court decided in the artist’s favour.

Robin Marriot, 66, a filmmaker from London, said: “Every day I encounter this in my business. I’m setting my camera up, filming in the street and I can’t help people walking past. It is their problem, not mine.”

But voyeurism is not a new concept. Walker Evans’s subway portraits taken from 1938-1941 show subway passengers as seen by a hidden camera concealed in his sleeve.

Famous people started appearing in newspapers when cameras became mainstream in the late 19th century. A celebrity room at the Tate Modern contains photos of Jack Nicholson in a road rage incident and newspaper clippings of Princess Di’s death. Ron Galella’s aggressive photography of Jackie O’s every move ceased when a court intervened on her behalf.

The exhibit also explores voyeurism through sexuality. Photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki took explicit photos in Tokyo’s parks in 1971 using infrared-sensitive film and filtered flashbulbs.

“I don’t think that the pictures shown here are shocking. We are used to it now, because you could see the same pictures every day on TV. You don’t know where you’re being filmed or pictured,” said Jill Philipps, 52, council administrator from London. “Obviously it is a good thing for crime-fighting, but people should be aware of it.”

Much of the exhibit also explores surveillance and how it has evolved over time due to increased street monitoring, mobile phones and the internet. Some say it has changed massively with photographers documenting wars over the years and the introduction of high-powered lenses and night vision equipment designed for spying.

Benjamin Lowy’s series called “Iraq Perspectives” shows images created by taping US military night vision goggles to the lens of his camera. In a caption, he wrote: “The rest of Iraq, like the rest of us, are left in the dark.”

The Exposed exhibition runs through October before traveling to San Francisco followed by Minneapolis in spring 2011.