Friday, 3 May 2013


Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera

Blake Morrison looks at the history of voyeurism, from Actaeon to paparazzi hounding the Princess of Wales. A new exhibition shows how technology has given us fresh ways of satisfying our desire for a secret glimpse.
All art involves looking. But some looks are more invasive than others. Where's the line to be drawn? What's allowable and what's exploitative? Is it OK to portray people without them knowing? These questions come up in regard to life writing and documentary films. But it's with photography that they're most contentious, and a major new exhibition at the Tate, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, raises them in relation to images of sex, war and celebrity from the past 150 years.
Modern technology has made voyeurism more sophisticated, through zoom lenses, camera phones and CCTV. But as the curator of the Tate show, Sandra Phillips, argues, the desire to peek into the lives of others is basic to the human species. The pioneers of photography recognised that, using the camera to gain access behind closed doors. Some of their subjects were complicit. In the 1860s, the countess of Castiglione, mistress of Napoleon III, revelled in performing for a professional photographer. But by the end of the century, the fashion was for something less contrived. "Taken Unawares: Snapshots of Celebrated People" was a page in the tabloid Penny Pictorial. Readers welcomed it as proof that the rich and powerful are no different from the rest of us; the rich and powerful disliked it for the same reason.
To take a shot in secret was no easy thing in those days. But from the start photographers proved resourceful. Early portable cameras – known as "detectives" – were disguised as books and parcels, or hidden in canes, umbrellas and shoes. More practical was the vest pocket camera, with a shutter release cable dangling down the sleeve into the hand. Later came false lenses and right-angle viewfinders, with the camera pointing in one direction while the shot was taken in another.Walker Evans used this ploy in the 1930s, while photographing the poor in New Orleans and Mississippi; so did Helen Levitt, on the streets of Harlem. Later, the two of them prowled the New York subway, with Evans's camera concealed inside his overcoat. Uneasy about his sneakthief methods, Evans waited 25 years before publishing the results: "The rude and impudent invasion", had, he hoped, "been carefully softened and partially mitigated by a planned passage of time".
The camera can't change the world, but there's an idea that it can protect us – hence surveillance, which promises to watch over us, and watch out for us, rather than merely watch. The idea of surveillance has already produced a sizeable body of literature, film and music – Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Hitchcock's Rear Window, Coppola's The Conversation, Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others, even the Police song "Every Breath You Take" ("I'll be watching you") – and it's central to photography, too. Some of the first photos were police photos. And it wasn't just convicted criminals whose mugshots were placed on file but anyone who might pose a threat – anarchists, suffragettes, anti-war demonstrators, foreign spies whispering in the street.

The extent to which the state is watching us today would shock even Orwell. And while some photographers have hijacked advances in technology for their own kind of snooping (such as Alair Gomes, training telephoto lenses on muscled young men on the beach, or Merry Alpern taking a videocam into a women's dressing room), others have used old-fashioned landscape shots to depict the insidious spread of surveillance cameras in our suburbs and streets. To the photographer, CCTV is an affront, because it records at random, without human agency; it doesn't know it's bearing witness. And yet, as Sandra Phillips says, certain photos taken for security reasons – aerial reconnaissance shots of missile sites, for example, or the green glow of buildings seen through night-vision goggles – have a strange abstract-expressionist beauty.
Modern surveillance techniques look like the stuff of science fiction. But there's nothing new about the desire to watch someone without them knowing – and nothing unnatural about them being furious if they find out. If Actaeon happened on Diana today, he'd use his camera phone. But if he tried to post the photos on the internet, she'd have her lawyers rip him apart.

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