Wednesday, 2 February 2011


(aka Is Blog Short For Backlog Part 3?)

Profuse apologies for the continued lateness of posting here, which was never what you might call timely to begin with! Things might stay laggardly for a little while longer as I wrestle with DIY culture of a more literal kind. Once the new flat is in a state closer to habitable-ness we should be back to regular-late rather than late-late...

... so, on that note, let’s focus on a photography exhibition at the Tate Modern that finished in October. Some have commented that I treat exhibitions as texts, focus on the wood not the trees, the show rather than the artwork it contains. To which I reply that exhibitions do not arrive assembled, they have curators who cannot help but have angles and agendas. There is nothing inherently sinister about this, in fact it’s pretty much inevitable, but agendas are always better made overt. Don’t pretend not to be biased, admit how you are biased

This time, however, we’re looking at something with an explicit and specified agenda. It’s almost like an illustrated essay laid out in the form of wall-space. Combined with the time-lag in looking at it, this will result in a commentary which fixes on the through-line to almost complete exclusion of the individual artworks, simply because that’s what remained stuck in my mind these months later. So if almost complete treelessness bothers you, look away now.

Inherent Voyeurs?

So what is this agenda? To quote curator Sandra S Phillips “Exposed asks whether such invasiveness is inherent to the medium itself.” Or, as contributing photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki confesses, “I may be a voyeur because I am a photographer.”

Proceedings kick off with Jacob Riis’ reportage snapshots of New York tenement poverty from the end of the Nineteenth Century, with labels asking us to note the inherent voyeurism. It does feel a little disingenuous not to even consider the photographer’s intent, which was to expose not the lives of the poor so much as the condition of poverty. That individual, in their own threadbare clothes, at their specific downtown address, is there only to represent a general situation.

Moreover, at the time the technology of photography would have gone along with this reforming zeal. These were not studied oils of great men, but quick snapshots of a situation which could and should be made to change. Technology was both illuminating their poverty and offering a chance to escape it – a medium of the moment for a world in flux. Talking about these photos without acknowledging that is like suggesting Eisenstein made ‘Battleship Potemkin’ because he was interested in the history of shipping.

However, it’s equally true that the unique feature of photography is that there must always be a particular. Painting or drawing can be wholly symbolic, such as Constructivist images of the universal man, or even entirely abstract and still be saying something about the world. Photography must always present a piece of the world, to quote Phillips “capturing a split second of real life.”

As cameras became more ubiquitous, as we handled them more often, this sense of the particular is probably the conception of them which we absorbed. They became less an all-seeing eye, framing and capturing slices of the real, and more representing the self as an atomised citizen - not interacting with the scene but observing it. We have almost become cameras ourselves. This is quite notable at public events such as gigs or demos, where some spend as much time looking through a viewing frame as they do participating. It’s inherent to the concept of the voyeur that they are just observing.

 Making It Real

And of course as the private and unrecorded recedes to smaller and smaller zones, those unlit corners become more fetishised. Concealment suggests that the private is somehow inherently interesting, an idea at its nadir in the risible movie ’Sliver’. Everyone in an apartment block has their actions captured on a wall of secret monitors, and of course everyone is fighting or fucking, no-one flossing their teeth or idly watching TV while picking lint from their belly button.

The show claims “we can now see anything, virtually.” Yet is there not something self-fulfilling about this notion that everything is now on show? We’re made to assume that these days everything, or at least everything interesting, is automatically found by the camera’s frame.

Moreover, the camera’s visibility ray is almost held to have almost magic powers. Recently shortchanged in a supermarket, I complained to the manager. I was told that the assistant couldn’t possibly have palmed my money, as they were under constant CCTV scrutiny. I asked if that footage had been checked. Impatiently, as if speaking to an imbecile, she explained – no, the footage was never checked, there simply was too much of it and too little time. But the point was that the footage was there.

It is not that everything nowadays is recorded. The point is that the recording is no longer something secondary but confused with the incident itself, with anything unrecorded held as never happening. The act of observing no longer merely changes what it observes, instead it is held to instigate it.

This distinction is also used to enforce the doublethink we live through. While its established the police will film demonstrators from start to end of their route, on several occasions even following them afterwards, it was made illegal for people to film them. (One law the ConDems, for all their trumping about civil liberties, are notably not repealing.) Similarly, billboards went up recently in my area, asking us to shop anyone we saw looking at CCTV cameras as they would almost certainly be terrorists.

 As Bruno Bettleheim wrote in ’The Informed Heart’, “Among the worst mistakes a prisoner could make was to watch another prisoner’s mistreatment.... For example, if an SS man was killing off a prisoner and other prisoners dared to look... he would instantly go after them too. But only seconds later the same SS would call the same prisoners’ attention to what lay in store for anyone who dared to disobey, drawing their attention to the killing as a warning example. This was no contradiction, it was simply an impressive lesson that said: you may notice only what we wish you to notice, but you invite death if you notice things of your own volition.”

Imperfectly Real

One plus point of this exhibition is that it tangles head-on the fabricated image. The manipulability of the image has risen alongside its ubiquity. Once we said “the camera never lies”, now we have made Photoshop a verb.

One feature of this is the presence of the photographer. In Riis’ tenement poverty shots he is always absent,  “the Unseen Photographer”, part of the convention that we are looking at pure reportage, the untrammelled truth. Yet he starts to appear more and more as the years go by. Helmut Newton photographs himself (in a mirror) in the action of photographing a nude model, even capturing a bored-looking onlooker in the frame (who turns out to be his wife). Like an Eighteenth Century portrait set against an Expressionist psychodrama, the artist goes from the unseen eye to the focus of his own work. Perhaps we’ll end up with two-way cameras, set up to auto-capture whoever pressed their button. Or perhaps filming will become so ubiquitous the question will simply stop arising.

But it’s actually when the photographer’s presence is implicit or ambiguous that you most take notice. In two pictures by Lee Freidlander, we see a stumpy hand behind someone’s back, then a shadow of a head falling on another. I immediately lost all interest in the ostensible subject as I tried to work out angles and proportions, in case these indistinct stubs belonged to the photographer.

...which leads onto a trick of the trade which endures. For all our supposed suss about the manipulability of images, we are still in many ways suckers for imperfect images. Anything blurred or de-centered, our brains cannot help but associate with rushed or even surreptitious photography – which we label as ‘real’ and urgent. The show gives us several examples of how shots were deliberately staged to look that way, to simulate precisely that reaction, and we are unsurprised to hear of this. But there’s something in the imperfect image which still suckers us.

It’s similar to the juddery, hand-held camera look perfected by multiplex movies such as ’Monsters’ or ’Cloverfield.’ Or the way roughly recorded punk tracks are supposed to be more ‘honest’ than polished pop numbers. Distressed fonts, ready-frayed clothes... our modern lives seem full of these totems. Perhaps, in an age where the word “icon” became divorced from its original religious context to spread everywhere, the image is now too perfectible - and we rush to the illusion of its opposite, demanding designer imperfections.

To answer the show’s question, technology is never politically neutral and there is always a complex inter-relationship between it and it’s society. Our culture has undoubtedly become more visual to the point where blocks of text now look almost inherently old-fashioned, so it is no surprising that photography has become more totemic to it. Yet voyeurism is really little more than an eroticisation of alienation; concluding himself unable to become involved in events, the voyeur decides he might as well make the most of this by enjoying it. To that degree, this show is actively onto something. Yet there is nothing inherently voyeuristic to photography, any more than there is anything inherently cerebral to writing. The medium is not always the message.

To be fair, the show is not so simple-minded as to suggest there’s a single answer to its question. Though it leans towards an affirmative and has clear post-modern sympathies, it also discloses evidence for the other side. Two counter-examples remain in my mind. Every day for a month Vito Acconci randomly selected a stranger in a crowd, and followed them with his lens. The next day, there would be someone else. Yet also on show is Nick Ut’s famous picture of Kim Phuc, the naked Vietnamese child fleeing a napalm attack. We’re told that after taking the snap, Ut took the child to hospital, and since then the two have remained friends. Photography doesn’t mean participation. But it doesn’t rule it out...

This show did happen. It has been recorded.

Coming soon! More backlog...

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