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SFMOMA Presents Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and The Camera Since 1870

Thematic Survey Explores Provocative Intersections of Photography and Voyeurism

From October 30, 2010, through April 17, 2011, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present the U.S. debut of a major survey that examines photography’s role in invasive looking. Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870 is co-organized by SFMOMA and Tate Modern, and gathers more than 200 pictures that together form a timely inquiry into the ways in which artists and everyday people alike have probed the camera’s powerful voyeuristic capacity.

Works by major artists, including Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Nan Goldin, Lee Miller, Thomas Ruff, Paul Strand, and Weegee will be presented alongside photographs made by amateurs, professional journalists, and governmental agencies, exploring the larger cultural significance of voyeurism and surveillance technology.

Conceived by SFMOMA Senior Curator of Photography Sandra S. Phillips and co-curated with Tate Curator of Photography Simon Baker, Exposed traces how voyeuristic observation with cameras in the 19th century influenced street photography in the 20th century. Moving beyond typical notions of voyeurism and surveillance as strictly erotic or predatory, the presentation will address these concepts in their broadest sense—in both historical and contemporary contexts—investigating how new technologies, urban planning, global intelligence, celebrity culture, and an evolving media environment have fueled a growing interest in the subject. With the proliferation of cell-phone cameras, YouTube videos, security cameras, reality television, satellite views, and infrared technology, our potential to spy on others seems increasingly boundless.

The exhibition tour begins at the Tate Modern, London, in May of 2010. Following its stateside premiere at SFMOMA in the fall, Exposed will travel to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in spring 2011. The presentation draws from renowned private and museum collections worldwide, including the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives, and features a concentration of important works from SFMOMA’s collection. Exposed will be accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue with original essays that examine the surreptitious use of the camera in all walks of life.

“As the importance of photography has grown over time, and the art museum itself has become a place for investigating larger cultural issues, this seems an appropriate moment to look at these kinds of pictures to learn from them and to better know ourselves,” says Phillips. She first conceived the project as a follow-up to her groundbreaking 1997 SFMOMA exhibition Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence, the first museum presentation to examine mug shots and other police photographs as cultural artifacts. Phillips continues, “The camera is now more adept at concealment, and we often feel protected because we are watched—a telling and relatively recent development. The spy who used to be consigned to the shadows and often called shady is now tolerated in the open and can, in fact, be you or me with a cell phone, even as we are being observed through a surveillance camera.”

Facilitated and encouraged by the camera, voyeurism and surveillance provoke uneasy questions about who is looking at whom, whether for power or for pleasure. Voyeurism has long been acknowledged as an essential aspect of photography and represents its most common use. Yet there have been surprisingly few attempts to examine the history of this invasive form of looking. Exposed aims to fill this critical void by highlighting five types of voyeuristic photographs: street photography; the sexually explicit pictures normally associated with voyeurism; celebrity stalking; photographs of death and violence; and surveillance in its many forms.

While Exposed primarily focuses on the medium of photography, the exhibition will also showcase examples of film, video, and installation work by artists such as Thomas Demand, Bruce Nauman, and Andy Warhol, selected by Phillips in collaboration with SFMOMA Curator of Media Arts Rudolf Frieling. Exposed will also feature a selection of archival cameras that were designed to be concealed in artful ways, including models used by spies during the cold war.

Five Themes of Forbidden Looking

The Unseen Photographer

Photography has been central to voyeuristic looking since 1871, the year in which the gelatin dry plate was invented and cameras became small enough to be secreted in books, clothing, shoes, pistols, or canes. Although most “detective cameras” were advertised as harmless amusements for amateurs, the public found them troubling from the start, raising concerns about privacy that remain valid to this day. This section of the exhibition traces the use of the hidden camera in public spaces, from the turn-of-the-century amateur picture makers Paul Martin and Horace Engle, to modernist photographers Walker Evans and Weegee and contemporary artists such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia, whose series Heads, featured here, famously inspired a privacy lawsuit in 2006.

Voyeurism and Desire

Among the first applications of photography was the production of erotic pictures, originally in the form of daguerreotypes and stereo views. Ranging from Edgar Degas’s studies of nude bathers to Andy Warhol’s Blow Job and provocative pictures by Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, and Helmut Newton, this section traces the gray area between voyeuristic sexuality and pornography since the 19th century.

Celebrity and the Public Gaze

Photographs of public figures date back to the 19th century, but the roots of today’s cult of celebrity lie in the invasive techniques of the Italian paparazzi, whose pictures were consumed widely via the popular press in Europe and the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. The most persistent was perhaps Tazio Secchiaroli, who pursued stars on his Vespa, enraging some of his subjects to the point of violence. Other figures of note represented in this section include Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon, Doris Banbury, and Ron Galella, the American paparazzo who was infamously punched by Marlon Brando and sued by Jackie Onassis.

Witnessing Violence

In 1928 photojournalist Tom Howard made a shocking image of Ruth Snyder’s electrocution using a hidden camera strapped to his ankle. It was a watershed moment in voyeuristic reportage, fueled largely by the insatiable public appetite for tabloid journalism. Significantly, the 20th and 21st centuries have seen many of their signal catastrophes captured on film, from the Hindenburg disaster and John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the 9/11 tragedy.


From shots used to identify suffragettes and anarchists to prisoner Rudolf Cisar’s clandestine views of Dachau, photography has been crucial to a wide variety of surveillance projects, both political and private. This section juxtaposes FBI photographs and military reconnaissance shots with work by contemporary artists who have critiqued or appropriated the technologies of surveillance, including Jordan Crandall, Bruce Nauman, Barbara Probst, and Thomas Ruff.

Major Publication

SFMOMA, in association with Yale University Press, will publish a major catalogue in conjunction with the exhibition. Phillips edits the volume and introduces the five primary themes of the exhibition, providing rich historical context for the more contemporary work; Simon Baker looks at two 20th-century practitioners with very different approaches to urban photography—Bill Brandt and Ilya Ehrenburg—finding contemporary counterparts in Nan Goldin and Philip-Lorca diCorcia; Philip Brookman considers the genre of street photography as both art and surveillance; Carol Squiers examines the subject of paparazzi pictures; Marta Gili looks at surveillance’s impact on contemporary art; and Richard B. Woodward addresses a startling recent trend: the self-documentation of sex, crimes, and other private acts. The book (256 pages, $50) will be available at the SFMOMA MuseumStore in the spring of 2010.

Image: Harry Callahan, Atlanta,1984; dye transfer print; 9 7/16 x 14 5/16 in. (23.97 x 36.35 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © The Estate of Harry Callahan, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

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