With Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, the Tate Modern has wheeled out another blockbuster exhibition, enticing the public in with more photographs and photographers than there are varieties of baked beans in a supermarket aisle. But this time – unlike 2008′s Street and Studio, which gathered almost all genres of photography under its title’s wide umbrella – Exposed somehow threads all its loose ends together.
In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag said, “The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist.” She discusses the way a photograph always prettifies any situation – however full of horror, the starkest content can still become beautiful through its composition. Exposed reveals this truth perfectly. Most of its content – whether Nick Ut’s photograph of children escaping Vietnam Napalm, Weegee’s image of kids witnessing a murder, or Merry Alpern’s secret photographs of a New York brothel – is attractive to us for its message, sure – but also for its sensation. The exhibition is neatly divided into The Unseen Photographer, Celebrity and the Public Gaze, Voyeurism and Desire, Witnessing Violence and Surveillance: the celebrity images perhaps being the most compelling – not for their beauty, but because I was struck by the uncomfortable situation of being faced with paparrazzi images in a gallery. These images best reflect our need for sensation at any cost: desire to see a diary of a celebrity’s every movement. Seeing Ron Galella’s obsessive paps of Jackie Kennedy huge before you was awkward viewing: private moments from decades ago, now splayed huge across a wall in London.
However, rather than spelling out what the public wants to see, I think Exposed reveals what the photography industry has enticed us to find important. On all levels since photography’s birth, picture editors, art directors, the press and galleries have suggested what we might find interesting. It’s kind of been like (excuse the Plato cave analogy) we’ve been sat in a room that we’ve been told is surrounded by mind-blowingly beautiful flowers, and then a small selection are bought back for us to view.
A photograph that best sums up this situation for me from the last few years is Indian Vogue’s first cover:
I grew up with Vogue, I shamelessly LOVE Vogue – I plastered its pages all over my bedroom wall – its camp, OTT glory carried my queer young head away from the regimented life of a all girls’ school pupil’s existence. Back then, people complained about heroin chic – but what irked me far more was the constant appearance of white models over other races.
Then this cover appears, years later… and the trend continues – do the two Indian women not look as though they should look up to the cover’s central star? India’s burgeoning female middle class were being pushed towards a certain idea by this cover – that their beauty is acceptable, but the Western ideal prevails. Vogue’s gone out into a world of women, and come back with this selection for the ‘room’ to view.
What I loved about Exposed was its clever ability to reveal to us what have grown to love – both through choice and curiosity, but also through suggestion. The five exhibition categories mentioned earlier reflect our love of sensation, of twists on the familiar. Perhaps the best example of this was Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a slideshow of photographs set to music. Her interspersing of often painful images of people she knew with an occasional more familiar family album-style snap of a couple cuts to the core of what we see, and what we want to see. Her subjects’ drug use, aggression and autobiography are all laid out for us to view: in a diary format that is more conventionally polished and put into traditional boundaries: birthdays, parties, marriages. Hopefully, it prompts viewers to question how they edit what they choose to record from life. Now we live in a Facebook society, we spend hours a year looking at pictures of our own friends, which have in turn been detagged and edited down by others. How easily would images of a picture of an injured or depressed friend sit amoungst these albums.
But I can’t deny it… I love unreality: my own club photos for this site present what you see on a drunken, hazy night out in London’s dark clubs. In between flashes of club lights and alcohol girls become momentary icons of lust. I suppose I second guess what you might want too, emphasising the magic and colour of a night out. Although hopefully I also capture some of the lonliness and fear of the club’s cast of punters too. Anyway, enough self-indulgent chat…
Go see this: go expose yourself to the guilty awkwardness of seeing, paired down, what you want to see…
Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera runs until October 3rd. To find out more information, click here.
This article was originally published on TheMostCake