Wednesday, 14 July 2010


It’s almost a month since I saw the current photography exhibition at Tate Modern. A month of continuing exhaustion, escalating heat and humidity and consequent inability to do much in the way of writing. But seeing this exhibition, and especially the thoughts I had in response to it, felt significant and I still want to try and record those thoughts.

It’s titled Exposed and deals with photography as a tool of surveillance, of voyeurism, of potential violation of privacy. It brings together a odd range of stuff:

“250 works by celebrated artists and photographers including Brassaï's erotic Secret Paris of the 1930s images; Weegee's iconic photograph of Marilyn Monroe; and Nick Ut's reportage image of children escaping napalm attacks in the Vietnam War. Sex and celebrity is an important part of the exhibition, presenting photographs of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Paris Hilton on her way to prison and the assassination of JFK. Other renowned photographers represented in the show include Guy Bourdin, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Philip Lorca DiCorcia, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, Lee Miller, Helmut Newton and Man Ray”, along with “works by both amateur and press photographers, and images produced using automatic technology such as CCTV”.
The list of famous photographers is impressive, but there wasn’t much to appeal to me aesthetically. A shiver of excitement at seeing one famous and particularly wondrous picture by Henri Cartier-Bresson. A shot by Harry Callahan which I can’t find online, a backview of a woman in a red dress: no head, no arms and legs, just the dress in close-up, it’s colour and its folds and shadows as the wearer moves – a photo which I’d never seen, but which must stand at the beginning of a line that has influenced me deeply. Not a lot, though, to gave me pleasure, and quite a bit to give the opposite. The ‘candid’ shot that verges on nasty, like some of Walker Evans’ street photos of blind, disabled or just plain odd people. Nan Goldin’s intimate photos of her friends had nothing distasteful in themselves, but the slide-show in a small dark side-room full of sweaty, staring men (yup, all men) did rather shock me. The press and surveillance photographs which made up much of the exhibition I mostly found merely boring.

Expecting to have a lot of feelings about this show, I found myself remarkably unengaged by it. That very lack of engagement, though, led me to some realisations about what I like to look at, what I like to photograph, and why. Photography and voyeurism is a topic that concerns and troubles me deeply. Just recently I took down a photo I had posted here. It showed a young woman quietly smoking and talking on her mobile phone in an empty alley, quite unexpectedly spontaneous and beautiful. I took it down with heavy heart because I loved that photo and felt intense joy in taking it, but with conviction, on reflection, that I should, because the essence of the image was that she had thought herself unobserved.

I have an ongoing disagreement with a friend who feels I am too blasé about taking photos of people in public places without their permission. I deeply respect this friend’s views and instincts, many of which I share. So this disagreement troubles me – as it should. It’s not just an intellectual disagreement. Our deepest feelings about this clearly differ. She has a gut-felt objection to being such a subject, whilst I couldn’t care less if someone photographs me on the street – if I’m in a public place, I can be seen: so what? I can heed the views and feelings of others and modify my actions accordingly. I should, and I will. But my instinct remains different from my friend’s. It just isn’t a feeling I can identify with. I might well object to being the subject of state or institutional surveillance, but I really don’t care if I’m the subject of an individual’s voyeurism, or curiosity, or visual manipulation. Of course, I probably don’t care because I have such strong voyeuristic tendencies myself. I love to look, and that is why I love taking photographs. I would contend that my looking is essentially benign. I look with love and admiration and interest and my look does no harm, unless it is harm to myself when I content myself with looking though I bleed inside for lack of touching, interaction. I loved photographing the young woman in the alley because she made such an artlessly beautiful picture.

Seeing this exhibition deeply confirmed this for me. I felt no interest whatsoever in most of the photographs on view, photographs which were not imagined, not composed, not experienced emotionally or aesthetically as they were taken, whose only purpose lay in surveillance, exposure. I have no interest, I realised, in photos that are not conceived or intended as art. I didn’t think I could ever come up with an ‘artist’s statement’ about my photographs. But perhaps I could (though I don’t know that I’d want to. Isn’t it superfluous, pretentious?) If I did want to make such a statement, I would say that I take photos to make patterns, to evoke moods, to ‘paint’, to ‘draw’ - because I cannot paint or draw - what I see, the games my mind’s eye plays, which will never be quite the same games as those of another mind. And that this is what all the great photographers I love are doing.


marja-leena said...

Deeply interesting essay, Jean. Nice to hear that others can be left cold by some of those 'famous' photographs. I love and agree with your final paragraph for I think you succeed in your aims.

I'm made to wonder how I'd feel if a stranger took my photo unawares when I generally don't like being photographed. I think I'd be very uncomfortable if my image was made public, such as on a blog or an exhibition without my knowledge and approval.

rr said...

A number of things strike me about this:

1) I'm not aware of being censorious about how my friends take photographs or their subjects, I'm merely aware that in such discussions my boundaries about taking photographs of identifiable individuals without some form of permission either implicit or explicit, and which are then distributed for viewing by others beyond the photographer (publicised/published/broadcast) are different to those of the majority of others I've had the discussion with. I wouldn't say "don't", I hope; I tend to say "I can't". At least that's what I consider myself to be saying. Perhaps it is heard differently. In which case my lack of clarity of expression is to blame.

2) I do not find looking at photographs taken under those conditions (shorthand: my impression is that no permission is involved) to be aesthetically engaging or pleasing. I cannot get beyond the deeply uncomfortable feeling of being complicit, by looking, in an invasion of someone's privacy. A friend once sent me a link to an entire series of such photographs asking for my opinion of them. Whilst being immensely flattered I was unable to formulate anything to say because I found it impossible to look at them without feeling deeply uncomfortable and, when life is so short, why should I put myself through that if it's not necessary? The response of people like me is not to look, because we have the right not to. I would never (I hope) tell my friend (or you) what you can or cannot take pictures of. I can, however, choose what to spend time looking at.

3) Despite paying close attention to and being a long-term admirer of your blog I have no memory at all of the photograph you describe which you took down. I presume I was unable to look at or engage with it in any meaningful way. See above.

4) My feelings on the matter are, as you indicate, both intellectually rationalised and emotionally internalised (personal pathology) and result in an attempt at a "do unto others as you would be done unto" approach.

5) My overall position cannot, however, be so left of field as to be pathologically eccentric since I note among the comments on the picture that you took down that Montreal's privacy laws would preclude the taking of such a photograph there. Montreal is not, as far as I am aware, best known for being an unreasonable fascist state or a region prey to the fear of photographic representations of living people stealing parts of their souls, rather it is celebrated as a centre of modernity, diversity and sensitivity to people's rights. Phew.

6) The palace of serendipity which is Whiskey River today had very wise words on the subject which is this non-prescriptive prescription:

"Everything in life is a question of drawing a line, and you have to decide for yourself where to draw it. You can't draw it for others. You can try, of course, but it doesn't work. People obeying rules laid down by somebody else is not the same thing as respecting life. And if you want to respect life, you have to draw a line."
- John Berger

rr said...

gak! sorry about double posting, i was twice given a bollocks google 404 message about my uri being too long and could have kept posting the same thing all night! let as be thankful for small mercies.

oh, and the word verification is "anusbegs". goodness me.

leslee said...

I rarely take photos of people in public places unless it's in a crowd and they're part of the scenery or perhaps from behind and at a distance in the park, for example. I do remember your photo and I loved it. I've seen other wonderful person-on-the-street shots such as our friend TC has taken in New York. I also follow a guy on Facebook who takes surreptitious photos of subway riders with his cell phone. They're fascinating.

Maybe being on a public street or subway in the city seems to give more permission and negate a certain amount of privacy since city people are used to being seen. I actually found it unnerving at first when I moved from the relative privacy of the countryside to an urban area where anything you do outdoors is likely to be observed by passersby. I tend to be aware of being visible, but it's part of being in public. As for being photographed in public, I guess it depends on the intent of the photographer. If it's benign, I'm likely to feel that and respond accordingly.

Fire Bird said...

Interesting debate. I loved that photo and was not concerned about it in the way that you were. My brother takes a lot of street shots of people he doesn't know. I have enjoyed many of them, with no uneasy feelings. I think when one is in the public domain, one cannot expect to be private. However it would upset me to see photographs in this realm (blogging) of people in distress, pain etc. Of course photo journalism has that market cornered already, and I loathe it!!

Fire Bird said...

Just have to add (by way of semi-contradiction) that I have seen some stunning photos in professional exhibitions of people in distress/ pain etc. I cannot define what makes this sort of subject 'ok' or not 'ok' to me. I'll go on reflecting.

Dick said...

I think you just managed the artist's statement very well, Jean, and, were I a better photographer than I am, I'd subscribe to it.

And I love the 'meta-pic'.

Jean said...

Thanks, everyone, for the very thoughtful comments. This is a really tough one, I think. And I think I'm probably in the minority (though it's interesting, rr, that you seem to think you're probably in the minority). But I do feel very strongly about this, so I felt I had to say it.

I agree that we all have to draw our own lines. And that's sometimes really hard - easier to let other people or the lowest common denominator of public opinion draw them for us, but important not to.

I often feel a strong need to agree with people I like and who seem to dissent from the society that I dissent from. I desperately need to feel that we're in solidarity. But in the end I think this is just allowing society to win. We have to be able to see one another as on the same side, but still sometimes violently disagreeing.

Hmm. And this was 'just' about photographs.