Tate Modern, London, UK,
30 Aug 2010
Interview: Curator Simon Baker
Artist : Georges Dudognon
Title : Greta Garbo in the Club St. Germain
Date(s) : ca. 1950s
Credit : San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Members of Foto Forum, 2005.200 © Estate of Georges Dudognon
Interview by Maggie Gray
Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera
‘Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera’ is an exhibition that thrives on the unease of its spectators. Taking on the whole sweep of photographic history, it demonstrates how we have always used the camera as a tool to look at, record and expose the forbidden, hidden and sordid parts of life. The camera is a means of access – in this case to 14 rooms of celebrity, pornography, death, war, injustice, and the overlooked but revealing details of our everyday lives. As viewers, we are squarely at the centre of it all, strongly implicated as voyeurs. Peering at a series of diminutive photographs by Helmut Newton, you cannot avoid playing Peeping Tom - the tiny but sexually charged images crystallise too late to back out. In a darkened room, we look over photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki’s shoulder at infrared flash images of park night-life in Shinjuko, Tokyo, where entwined couples are unwittingly watched by voyeurs in the neighbouring bushes. We see people fall to their deaths, watch executions, spy on the activities of spies and glimpse secretive military bases through telephoto lenses. The show includes work from all eras, from the realm of high art to paparazzi captures to functional non-art images. It shows us photography – illicit photography in particular – as a phenomenon that encroaches into all aspects of our lives and quietly steers the way we see and experience the world around us. This is a show packed with questions, and who better to ask than the Tate’s first Curator of Photography, Simon Baker. Appointed to the Tate Modern last year, he oversaw the adaptation of this vast exhibition, originally curated by Sandra Phillips for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for a British audience.
For an art gallery exhibition ‘Exposed’ displays a wide spectrum of images, with a lot of non-art, functional photography on show. Why do you think Sandra Phillips took on such a broad theme?
Sandra has looked extensively at photography that comes from outside the art world (at police and forensic photography in particular), and in America it’s not uncommon for non-art and art images to be collected and appreciated side by side. ‘Exposed’ deliberately features a lot of non-art images, which I think addresses a key issue surrounding the display of photography in museums – the fact that many things which end up on the gallery wall weren’t originally produced as works of art. Take Robert Frank or Walker Evans. Their work was made outside the discourse of art but is now considered to be worthy of museums. You have to have that spread, from documentary or journalistic practice right through to deliberate works of art, in order to really show photography.
Do you think this variety is something that we are less used to in Britain than in the USA?
Certainly the Tate normally shows works of art. It’s relatively unusual for us to have things like photojournalism and archival images hung on the walls. In America, because of the way photography departments are set up within museums, they often have broader selections of material. There are places in Britain with similarly broad collections – the National Media Museum at Bradford, for example, holds a variety of photographs including scientific and journalistic images. It’s really the art galleries that don’t tend to show that kind of material. But these are categories that we can begin to unpick a little bit. The next show at the Tate Britain is Eadweard Muybridge. Some of his landscape work has a very aesthetic component, but his experiments with motion were produced for publication, not to hang on a wall. So again there’s that interesting relationship, this time between scientific inquiry and what ends up in museums. Hopefully people will reassess the photographs on show at ‘Exposed’ in light of their variety – with some beautifully set up and printed images hung alongside more functional works.
The camera is everywhere these days; pictures are everywhere. Where does this leave photography as an art form, in a gallery?
Everyone has a camera on their phone these days, and more people are making photographs than ever before. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that more people are thinking carefully about photography. Think about the other side of the medium – the creation of photographic prints. There are many more photos being taken, but not nearly so many pieces of paper surviving with those photographs on.
I think the question of picture-making, and how you actually conceptualise the image, is much more complicated than just the available technology. Many photographers are becoming more interested in the challenges surrounding different photographic methods. When it looked like Polaroid was going out of production, suddenly people became very nostalgic about having used them. It costs a certain amount to make a Polaroid picture, so you think more carefully about what you’re doing with it. Similarly if you use a large format camera and each shot you make costs you £12, you’re going to be careful about how you set it up. Whereas you have a different attitude if you’re using a digital camera and can experiment until your memory card is full. Many artists are going back to hand printing and older methods. Sally Mann for example uses nineteenth-century materials like collodion, which are very defunct, but which have a very strong physicality. You might say that this return to older processes is a reflex against the fact that the new technology out there seems so ephemeral; it doesn’t seem to last or stick.
What sort of images do you hope to see coming out of the World Photography Student Focus Competition?
Well hopefully legal ones! But actually I’ve taken student groups around the show, and many of them didn’t realise you can just take a picture on the street, legally. People are confused about what you can and can’t do, and a degree of self-censorship is affecting photography today. Lorca diCorcia [whose work is on show in the first room] used a very deliberate strategy of hiding the camera, taking pictures without the subject’s knowledge. But they have been proved, in the US at least, to be completely legal. And in fact the exhibition reveals that we are having our pictures taken all the time on the street, by CCTV and other mechanical means. So in a way we’ve already lost that assumption that we might not be photographed wherever we go. The last part of the exhibition shows how some photographers are taking the apparatus of surveillance as their subject; using the camera to expose the camera. That’s something that I think we could perhaps see explored further.
Why do you think we’ve become so obsessed with surveillance as a nation?
That’s a tricky question and I wouldn’t want to make a political statement as such. But I think that in Britain we have been under real and perceived terrorist threats for many years, given the history of our relationship with Northern Ireland and the current security situation after the July 7 bombings in 2005. Threats have often affected non-military targets, particularly in London, but also in Manchester, Birmingham and other places. So you might imagine there’s a legitimating argument for surveillance technology in urban centres. Whether we believe it actually keeps us safe is a different matter. But I think all these things have an impact on the extent of surveillance in Britain today.
To go back to the other side of the exhibition, voyeurism: do you think there’s something about photography in particular that attracts this sort of imagery?
I think there’s a relationship between knowledge and seeing. Photographs have always enabled us to see things that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to, and looking is a form of knowing so we crave it. If you’re told not to look at something, you want to – it’s the forbidden shot. The photojournalism of people like Lewis Hine exposed, for the first time, things that people weren’t aware of. That kind of example [Hine’s photographs revealed unpalatable truths about child labour in mines and factories] gives a powerful sense of what it means to show somebody something rather than just telling them.
Did you hit any legal or ethical minefields when putting the show together?
Not really, no. I wouldn’t say there were no issues – there are issues and we think very hard about them. So we’re confident that we’re only showing perfectly legal images. In terms of this show, I would say that the time to challenge (legally at least) many of the works on display has passed. On the whole, they have all been shown at some point in a similar context, and we don’t think that any of them prove particularly challenging in that regard today.
What’s next for the photography programme at the Tate?
There has been a photography show more or less every two years since the Tate Modern opened, and the Tate Britain tries to run shows regularly too. The aim will be to carry on with that. But increasing the long-term availability of photography at the Tate will centre more on developing the free, permanent displays. That’s certainly been the case with our time-based media curator, who’s been here for a few years; we now have really strong holdings of moving image work in the collection, and the same goes for performance now as well. When you have curators who are specialising in particular areas such as these, it helps the museum to learn more about how best to show them, and how to make their collections visible. An important part of my job is to make sure that when somebody interested in photography visits the museum there’s always something rewarding for them to see. There’s a fantastic room of Bruce Davidson’s work up now which people can visit for free whenever they want. That’s the sort of thing we’ll work on between the big exhibitions.
WORLD PHOTOGRAPHY STUDENT FOCUS COMPETITION
In an exclusive partnership with Young Tate Online and the ‘Exposed’ exhibition, the World Photography Organisation’s 2011 Student Focus programme has launched an international competition with ‘Surveillance’ as its theme. The competition invites students from across the globe to directly engage with the issues raised in ‘Exposed.’ The culmination of the competition will take place in London as part of the World Photography Festival: 10 shortlisted students and their tutors will be invited to the city to complete a final assignment. The Student Focus winner will be announced at the Sony World Photography Awards Ceremony on April 27th 2011 alongside the Professional and Open category winners. See http://www.worldphoto.org/student-focus/ for details.
Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera runs at Tate Modern, London until 3 October 2010.