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.