Walker exhibit explores voyeurism as art

Sandra Phillips
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Curator Sandra Phillips created "Exposed:Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870" which opens this weekend at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. (In the spirit of the show this picture was taken without her knowledge.)
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Everyone is shooting pictures. We are awash in photographs. In magazines, the newspapers, on the internet, on billboards. And Sandra Phillips argues that, while we may complain, we also look.

As the curator of "Exposed," a new exhibit at the Walker Art Center, she wanted to explore something with an ugly name -- voyeurism.

"I wanted to learn about the culture of voyeurism and how it relates to our lives as artists, as citizens and what role it has in our culture," she said. "And it's a huge role."

There are some 150 pictures in "Exposed." Most were created without the consent of the subjects. Some of the images are sexual, some are violent. Many are icons of our times: Brassai's pictures of lovers sitting in Paris cafes, Weegee's pictures of Marilyn Monroe, the summary execution of a Viet Cong officer.

Phillips created the show for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern in London. She said pretty much as soon as small hand-held cameras became available in the 1870s, photographers began taking candid shots.

Phillips says Paul Strand, who she describes as the father of street photography, used a special camera to snap shots of unsuspecting subjects.

"To make himself unnoticeable he put a false lens on the front of the camera, and the side of the camera had the real lens," she says. "So, in other words, the person who was being photographed did not know he was being photographed."

Greta Garbo in 'Exposed'
Georges Dudognon, Greta Garbo in the Club St. Germain, ca. 1950s; gelatin silver print; 7 1/16 x 7 1/8 in. (17.94 x 18.1 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Foto Forum purchase; © Georges Dudognon
Image courtesy Walker Arts Center

One of Strand's pictures hangs on the wall nearby -- a shot of an impoverished man showing the wear and tear of a very hard life. It's a riveting image, but it raises questions about the ethics of photography. He didn't know he was being photographed.

Phillips said as the language of photography evolved it took on an aggressive tone.

"You've got people who are 'taking' a photograph. Or people who are 'capturing' something," she said. "That language I think is very interesting. It's not the kind of language an artist would normally use."

The early photographers saw themselves as doing important work, exposing the ugly realities of modern life to the larger world. Yet Phillips says at the bottom of it all was an invasion of privacy. She called renowned artists such as Strand, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others voyeurs.

Some of the images in "Exposed" are sexual, some are violent. This picture by Tom Howard is "The Electrocution of Ruth Snyder," made in 1928. (gelatin silver print; 4 x 4 in. (10.16 x 10.16 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase)
Image courtesy Walker Art Center

"I don't think they would deny it," she said.

And the public has always wanted to see what they produced.

Walker Head Curator Darsie Alexander said "Exposed" was a hard show to install because of the emotional weight of many of the images, and she expected it will touch some visitors deeply.

"I think people are going to have a wide range of experiences, but perhaps come away from the exhibition with a greater awareness of how these types of pictures functioned, both historically and how they've become such an integral part of our culture today."

"Exposed" explores two enormous facets of camera culture. First, there's modern celebrity, which Phillips said is voyeurism of people who want to be looked at.

And then there's surveillance, and Phillips explores that in "Exposed" with images taken from closed circuit cameras. Anyone and everyone can be exposed.

"Exposed" can be quite unsettling. Visitors may be puzzled by a large black canvas in the show. Yet when they turn around they see an image on a TV monitor. It's from a special camera mounted on the wall across the room. It's military technology that reveals another image under the black paint. It's a life-size portrait of a lynching party grinning round a corpse. And on the monitor the visitor appears in the picture.

It's enough to make you wonder if it's being recorded.

"I don't know, that's a good question," Phillips laughed.

Phillips said in other cities visitors have often become so engrossed in the pictures and their stories that they have stayed in the museum for several hours -- Even if they are more than a little creeped out by them. .

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.