SFMOMA’s sprawling new photography survey, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870 turns the high powered gaze of the camera onto itself, exploring over a century of peeping, spying, monitoring, snooping and all other forms of illicit looking facilitated by the handy-dandy technology of the lens. It’s an impressively researched archive of images that is as prescient as it might be paranoid. And like most brilliant exhibits, it elaborates on a simple historical premise: the invention of the gelatin dry plate which liberated cameras from their clunky armatures, made them portable, but also small enough to conceal. Within the context of the exhibit, this evolution in gadgetry becomes a parable of human nature as the encounter between the eye and the lens unleashes an unforetold legion of perversions that have congealed into our contemporary visual regime. It’s like the forbidden fruit of knowledge, but with a better digital zoom. If slightly disconcerting in its implications, the exhibition is also one of the juiciest—and we mean juicy—things you’ll encounter in a museum in a long time.
Weegee (Arthur Fellig), Marilyn Monroe c1950s, © Weegee / International Center of Photography / Getty Images
The show is organized into several titillating sub-categories, which can’t help but sound like sub-headings in the DSM. These range from the seemingly harmless “Unseen Photographer” to the expected “Voyeurism and Desire” to the ridiculously fascinating, “Surveillance,” which focuses on all modes of Cold War and post-Cold War espionage. Each of these subsections provides a mini archive, as well as a trove of iconic images, which, of course, include some of the expected trashy suspects. There are the pervy classics of Mapplethorpe, ditto for Noboyoshi Araki, the fashionable pseudo-smut of Helmut Newton, which looks terribly stylized after a tour through Nan Goldin. There are also snaps from more respectable masters, such as Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Weegee and Brassaï—all providing their own unique spin on prying eyes.
But the real gems in the exhibition are found when it moves beyond the parameters of fine art or official photographic history, to grapple with the real nitty-gritty. This is a testament to the skill and vision of curator Sandra Phillips, who has long been invested in plumbing the vernacular of photography in all its messiness. (It’s worth noting that this show is a follow up to her breakthrough 1997 Police Pictures: The Photograph As Evidence which marked one of the only times the FBI has collaborated in a curatorial venture.) So in the mix, Phillips also includes Tom Howard’s 1928 Electrocution of Ruth Snyder, taken from a camera hidden on his ankle. The lo-fi image flutters like an early Bacon. There’s Benjamin Lowy’s surveillance footage from Gulf War era Iraq as well as Ron Galella’s early snap shots of Jackie Kennedy, which may have spawned all of tabloid culture and Lee Miller’s Suicided Daughter of Burgermeister of Leipzig, Germany, April 19th 1945 originally published in Vogue.
Lee Miller, Bürgermeister Of Leipzig’s Daughter, Suicide Leipzig Germany, 1945. Copyright Lee Miller.
The impact of these images is hard to describe; they are as awe inspiring as they are unsettling, and they paint a haunting picture of a violent century. But they also come to bear on ‘historiography’ as much as ‘history,’ and here the issue proves more complicated. For ultimately, these “documents” may be as elusive as they are revelatory, caught in their own haze of representation. Trevor Paglen’s painterly snap shots of spy satellites speak to this, commenting on the limits of a seemingly all-encompassing vision. It’s an intriguing proposition, and ultimately as a whole, worth a long hard look.
- Franklin Melendez
(Top Image: Tom Howard, The Electrocution of Ruth Snyder, 1928; gelatin silver print; Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase)