We live in an era when almost everyone has a camera at their fingertips, and anyone, anywhere—even Osama Bin Laden—can dive as deep into the stink of human depravity as they desire. All of us have looked at photos that, once seen, cannot be unseen—yet we look anyway, because voyeurism—the act of spying on people engaged in behaviors that are normally private, without their knowledge—is pretty much hard-wired into our brains as an interesting behavior of its own.
The camera is the tool that raised voyeurism to an art form, and the Walker Art Center’s new exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera since 1870 , explores the evolution of our fascination with clandestine images that are sexual, illegal, immoral, shocking, or just plain embarrassing in nature. Developed by the Tate Museum and San Francisco Museum of Modert Art, Exposed contains more than 200 photos separated into five themed sections: The Unseen Photographer, Voyeurism and Desire, Celebrity and the Public Gaze, Witnessing Violence, and Surveillance.
Given such salacious categories, and the millions of photographs that could have been chosen for this show, as well as the massive quantity of smut available with the click of a mouse today—images so perverse and disgusting that they call into question the mental health of everyone involved: photographer, subject, and viewer—this is a show that should almost be lauded for its astonishing restraint. In the Voyeurism and Desire room, for instance, it’s not hard to imagine a selection of photographs that would make James Bond blush. But no, most of the photos, even the ones of prostitutes, are fairly tame, focusing on quiet moments that hint at intimacy but don’t exploit it. One sepia-toned image is of a woman in modest underwear bending over. Another photo, by Henri Cartier-Bresson, of a homeless couple sleeping, is positively peaceful.
This sense of being teased, then underwhelmed, maybe even disappointed, happens frequently in Exposed . Most of the photos are black and white, and many of them are quite small. To discover their secret, you must lean in close, like a peeping tom peering through a window pane (a recurring motif, since looking through a window suggests a barrier, or lack of connection, between the observer and the observed.) Still, it's often difficult to understand why certain photos were chosen and not others—even photos by such famous photographers as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt, and Robert Frank.
For example, the Celebrity and Public Gaze section could potentially be filled with all sorts of lurid paparazzi photos—photos that, if included, might even have catapulted this exhibit into a mega-hit with the hoi polloi. Instead, the photos chosen offer a bizarre kind of ambiguity. A short Andy Warhol film entitled “Blowjob” focuses on a young man’s face as he is presumably being pleasured, but it could just as well be an acting stunt. A close-up photo by Elena Dorfman, of a woman crossing her legs, turns out not to be a woman at all, but the legs of a life-like inflatable doll, the kind used as "companions" by men who don’t have the courage or inclination to canoodle with a real woman.
Even the photos of legitimate celebrities deliberately undermine their dazzling public image, which turns out to be precisely the point. It’s the ordinariness of the photos that shocks, not the celebrity factor. Four small black-and-white photos of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor show them lying by a pool, kissing, being regular people. And a photo by George Dudognon, "Greta Garbo in the Club St. Germaine," depicts the greatest sex symbol of her era looking peculiarly Amish.
Where the exhibit really delivers the goods, though, is in the Witnessing Violence section. There, you’ll see many well-known photos, such as Nick Ut's Pulitzer-winning shot of terrified Vietnamese kids running screaming and naked from a napalm blast. The famous shot by press photographer Eddie Adams, of a Vietnamese officer shooting a traitor in the head, is also displayed. Various lynchings, executions, murders, and mutilations offer a solemn commentary on the ever-more-creative ways humans devise to destroy each other.
Perhaps the most devastating photo is by American photographer Bill Burke, of a Vietnamese man with both his legs blown off, lying on a medical table with a look of beatific calm on his face. It’s the juxtaposition of the violence done to his body and the expression on his face that is so arresting. Likewise, there’s a photo of the remains of a body that has been executed, tortured, hacked to pieces, and burned somewhere in the jungles of Nicaragua. The landscape around the body is peaceful and bucolic; only the inert evidence of the horror remains.
In this and many other ways, Exposed takes the less obvious, more thoughtful path than one might initially expect. Each photo represents an idea, and often you have to read the accompanying text to understand why it was included in the exhibit. At first the photo might seem entirely innocuous. For instance, a large photograph by Trevor Paglen looks like an abstract painting; it’s just a bunch of smudged lines arranged in layers, so it’s impossible to know exactly what is in the photograph. But it turns out that it's a photograph taken through a high-telescopic lens, across 50 miles of desert, of an area owned by the U.S. government where civilians are not allowed to go. “The truth” may be out there, the photo implies, but you don’t have the security clearance to know it.
Huge, bold photos are far and few between, because it’s not necessarily the photos themselves that are the object on display, but rather the concept behind the photo, or the relationship between the photographer and the photographed. In fact, the boldest part of the exhibit isn’t even in the main hall, it’s upstairs in the Metronic Gallery, where a notorious MoMa installation called “Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” by Nan Golden, features slides projected on a wall of 690 people in her life, many with tattoos, many who look strung out and destitute, and many, we are made to understand, who eventually died of AIDS. Most of the photos are from New York in the 1980s, but Golden continued to take photos of her friends over the course of 30 years, putting together a fascinating catalogue of characters connected to her—and by extension to you—through her extraordinary lens. The whole thing takes 45 minutes to get through, but the room you watch it in invites you to plop down in a beanbag chair, listen to some classic 1980s underground rock, and take in Golden’s photographic achievement.
Exposed is not an exhibit to breeze through quickly, because its rewards don’t announce themselves—you have to go find them, even if that means going to the 7th floor. In many cases, however, you won't find what you're looking for at all. The exhibit is strangely mute on a host of relevant subjects, such as the impact of digital-imaging technology, the whole new dimension of voyeurism and exhibitionism being engaged in on Facebook and other social media sites, the unprecedented availability of pornographic images, the introduction of amateur photography and video into the realm of professional news, the phenomenon of people photographing themselves as a bizarre form of reverse-voyeurism/narcissism, the evolution of cellphone photos as a burgeoning art form, the increasing size and clarity of display devices inside and outside the home, and the attachment of a camera to virtually every electronic communication device in existence, even ones that don't need them—like the Ipad 2.
On these and other topics, Exposed has little if anything to say. But if you look hard enough and pay attention, you will see plenty of things you didn’t notice at first, and gain a whole new respect for the power of photography to tell a particular kind of story, to be a witness to history, and to freeze-frame reality in a way no other art form can.
Of all the images that stuck with me, the one I can't stop thinking about is a tiny photo, maybe four inches square, of a U.S. soldier in World War II, a traitor, being executed. He is kneeling, his back against a post, wearing a blindfold, and the bullets have just ripped through his torso. The photo captures the exact moment of the man's passage from this world to the next, and for reasons I can't explain, it is haunting me. It's one of those images that cannot be unseen.
But I am certainly trying.
Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870 continues at the Walker Art Center through Sept. 18, and is accompanied throughout its run by a series of lectures called “Conversations about Photography” that extends the breadth of the exhibit in many different directions.