Saturday morning saw me at the Tate Modern with a small group of OCA students to visit the exhibition Exposure: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. It was a real pleasure to meet a group of students, get their perspectives on the work displayed and get a sense of their experience of studying with the OCA. I had expected that I would have been making the longest trip to the exhibition from sunny Sheffield, but Edith from the Netherlands and Kate from Ethiopia beat me quite convincingly. Having got the tickets and then looked at the catalogue, I was wondering what we would make of the exhibition.
The main perspective for the exhibition seemed to be focused on ‘what does this tell us about society?’ For example: What does it tell us that there is a demand to see images of violence? What do we think about about living in the most closely filmed and photographed society? These are important and pressing questions and it is very difficult to see some of the images of the mechanisms of surveillance without pausing for thought. For me, the image of the isolation room by Richard Ross (which you can see on the cover of his book The Architecture of Authority) is chilling. The imagination floods into the void.
However a secondary perspective is also explored and for me is the most interesting one. What does the body of work tell us about photography and photographers that they seek to capture images of others surreptitiously or they document aspects of their lives compulsively? And it seems to me that what links Walker Evan’s subway photographs to Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a striving for the ‘authentic’. This is a slippery concept. One can readily see that Evans’ images from the subway appear natural because the subject is not given the opportunity to pose, but this is only part of the process. His selection of which images to print cannot fail to introduce his own perspective. And this was indeed the critique of an outraged media faced with the images in Robert Frank’s The Americans (There’s a good podcast on the subject here).
More problematic are the images of the personal. For me, the exhibition gave an opportunity to see Nan Goldin’s work as it was originally intended – a slideshow with music. The sheer number of images convinces that while there is clearly an editorial process at work, the images are from a life lived rather than a world visited. And yet there remains the question of what is authentic in this context – a mere glimpse at Big Brother (the TV show) yields multiple references to contestants who are suspected by the peers of being fake for the camera. Did Nan Goldin and Larry Clark set out to live a life of challenges in order to photograph it. The question is clearly ridiculous, but the lingering doubt remains about Araki’s erotic macrame.
Yes, let’s continue the debate about surveillance, but let’s wonder at what is being surveyed.
Finally the image above was taken in response to a challenge from OCA tutor Clive White. In an exhibition devoted to surveillance, where photography was banned, it was just too tempting.
In the image above you can see me photographing a work by Oliver Lutz – The lynching of Leo Frank – which itself is based on a photograph made at the time of the lynching in 1915. The photograph was taken to be used in a postcard. Postcards of such events apparently circulated widely in the American South at the time. A point to remember – the next time someone tells you that the internet is a scourge – people have always used the tools at their disposal, for good or bad.