November 2010

The timely and thought-provoking exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870 — currently on show at SFMOMA through April 17 next year — explores the use and cultural impact of photography made in public spaces. A thorough examination of a powerful subject, the show inspires us to examine and question how we feel as individuals and a collective about watching and being watched. It also makes clear the huge impact cameras and camera technology has had and continues to have on us.

Exposed is co-organized by SFMOMA and Tate Modern (where it débuted in May), and comprises over two hundred images with works by artists, amateurs, professional journalists, and governmental agencies. The exhibition was conceived by SFMOMA Senior Curator of Photography Sandra S. Phillips and co-curated with Tate Curator of Photography Simon Baker. Just prior to the show’s SFMOMA opening, I did a walk-through with Phillips to gain insight on the show and learn about the stories behind the images.

Chérie Turner: What was the impetus for this show?
Sandra S. Phillips: That’s what everyone wants to know. I did a show a little more than fifteen years ago called Police Pictures, and it’s about the way we think photographs are objective truths, and they’re really not. This idea was the next obvious one — to look and see if the camera has made us see in ways we wouldn’t maybe ordinarily see and what it means culturally for us, too. If there’s a way we look at the world differently because we’re seeing it through a camera lens.

Can you talk about how the show is divided.
There are five sections [The Unseen Photographer, Voyeurism and Desire, Celebrity and the Public Gaze, Witnessing Violence, and Surveillance]. The first [The Unseen Photographer] is really about the beginning notions of what privacy is in public spaces. We are sensitized to having a sense of privacy because photography exploded that and abused it.

In 1870 it was possible suddenly to make a camera small enough that you could conceal it and film fast enough that you could record movement. There were all these amateurs all over the place who were making pictures that were very invasive. The laws said that an American citizen has a right to privacy except in a public space. So that’s why there’s this tradition of street photography, especially in the United States.
So a lot of these pictures here were taken with concealed cameras [several such cameras are on display] — looking at people when they were sleeping or drunk or when they were poor.

Man, Five Points Square, New York, 1916 by Paul Strand, 1916

This one is one you shouldn’t miss [Man, Five Points Square, New York, 1916]. It was done very early with a box camera that had a false lens on the front and the real lens on the side. It’s an invasive picture. The photographer’s looking at someone’s private anguish. And obviously many of the people in these images are poor–that’s another inegalitarianism.

New York by Garry Winogrand, 1969 Collection SFMOMA, fractional and promised gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein; © Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

This is interesting [New York] because the photographer uses a wide-angle lens, and of course, the couple doesn’t realize they’re being photographed. They think he’s taking just her picture.

nging photos; I’m thinking here about the torture or violence photos in this show as well as the sex images. Can you tell me why they interest you and why you think they’re important for us to look at.
First of all, I don’t think they’re all that difficult. We see most of this on the web all the time. They’re not unusual, they’re just in a different context here. And the reason they’re here is because I want people to think about them. I think they’re very beautiful.

One issue here is, How important in photography is it for the photographer to be an artist? I don’t think it’s important at all. I think the only thing that matters is the picture. And the picture can be taken by a robot or a child or a master photographer. This show is really about ideas as much as it is about pictures. That’s why they’re here. They’re here to be provocative and to promote discussion and thought. There are some creepy pictures, but I think they’re probably creepy because our culture is creepy. Many of these pictures were published in newspapers and magazines. It’s shocking we tolerate it.

We get to face that here, too.
This section [Celebrity and the Public Gaze] is about celebrity and the double-dealingness of celebrity. Celebrities, to be celebrities, need a public, and they need to show their privacy to the public because that’s what the public wants.

The Queen Plays with her Corgies from the series Confidential by Allison Jackson, 2007 Courtesy the artist and M + B Gallery; © Alison Jackson, courtesy M+B Gallery

These pictures [by Alison Jackson] are completely made up. They’re not real. They’re made with people who look like, say, the Queen.

[Moving on to the Witnessing Violence section.] One thing about this part of the show is that it demonstrates the violence and change in the sixties. There was a lot of sixties trauma that’s depicted that everyone got acclimated to; you saw people getting mangled by dogs and the Vietnam War.

Then we come to the first of the surveillance rooms. We start with history here beginning with the Civil War.

Criminal Record Office, Great Britain, Surveillance Photograph of Militant Suffragettes, ca. 1913 Collection and © National Portrait Gallery, London

Then, here [Surveillance Photograph of Militant Suffragettes], very early in the twentieth century, late nineteenth century, the police had these files on dangerous persons, like suffragettes or anarchists.

And then the technology improves, so you can have pictures taken of people in courtrooms or private meetings, without their knowing. And then this is Cold War stuff; here are real spy pictures.

I like them because you really can’t tell what happened. They’re completely ambiguous. They’re supposed to say something and they really don’t.

Marc Garanger, Femme Algerienne, 1960 collection SFMOMA, Accessions committee Fund purchase; © Marc Garanger

And these [images by Marc Garanger, 1960] are interesting. The photographer is a French soldier, who, during the Algerian War was sent to photograph woman to keep police records of them. Everyone had to have an identification card. And these are women whose faces had not been seen by anyone except their families. He had to insist that they take their veil off and be photographed. So two things that these women don’t appreciate, that kind of invasiveness and the graven image thing. The experience of doing this radicalized the photographer. He now uses these as documents of how we shouldn’t treat people.

Looking through these surveillance images, a lot of what this show is about is technology.
But also the meaning of technology and what technology looks like. You have to see it to be able to understand it. In the next room are more personal investigations of surveillance. This is a very interesting piece by Yoko Ono where she follows this person. It’s called Rape, but she’s just following someone.

Again with the creepiness.
It is creepy, but it’s also fascinating once you get into it.

Shizuka Yokomizo, Stranger No. 2, 1999 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Shizuka Yokomizo

These are other images [work by Shizuka Yokomizo] that you feel like you really shouldn’t be looking at because they’re so invasive.
Well, she’s this little Japanese lady and she writes to these people and says, “I’d like to take your picture through your window at night. And if you don’t want me to, just close the curtain.” She never actually talks to them directly. She just leaves this note in the mailbox. Of course, they can’t see her —

But they seem to be looking right at her. So, we’ve reached the end of the show here. Is there anything in particular that you would like the viewer take away from this show or think about.
I think the thing to think about is how powerful this is in our culture. How much a part of our culture it is. It’s infiltrated our lives. And, we might want to think about that. Not to be judgmental, but to understand what it means to us as a culture.

"Female Figure" by H.C. Westermann

This funky, fun show (on view through December 18, 2010) highlights work by two highly accomplished and similarly offbeat artists, William T. Wiley and H.C. Westermann. Wiley is one of the founders of the West Coast Funk movement and a masterful watercolorist, and Westermann is known for his inventive child-art or “low brow” aesthetic ,with doses of Surrealism. Make no mistake, this is finely crafted work, a fact particularly discernable in his sculpture. Of particular note is the use of unusual materials.

The two are linked art-historically for their 1960s and ’70s fine-art counterculture ways. Specifically, the artists turned away from mainstream art trends, be it minimalism or Abstract Expressionism. The two are also linked on more personal terms. Wiley (the younger of the two) was influenced by Westermann’s work; a mutual admiration developed over the artists’ years-long friendship and correspondence.

Common to both artists’ works are handwritten words and phrases, including a generous spattering of puns and sarcasm. The text reinforces the message, as well as the humor. There are also nods to art history. The works are highly personal and often emotional, making them truly individualistic.

Examples on view here show both artists at their best. From Westermann we see work spanning 1969 to 1980 (the artist passed in 1981), and from Wiley, mostly recent works, from 2009 and 2010. The quirky cartoonish, outsider-art appearance of these pieces belies their thinly veiled sophistication. It doesn’t take much more than a short pause to uncover the layers and rich storylines embedded in the pieces.

The subjects addressed are often weighty, including war, a major focus of Westermann’s, resulting from his personal experience serving in World War II. Death Black Ship (1972) — the ship is a recurring icon in Westermann’s work — is a wonderful example of such conflict-focused work. A battle rages off to one side, colorful and full of movement, while in the foreground, two rats sit on a ship’s deck with the quote, “Spectre though I may be, I am not sent to scare thee or deceive, But in reward of thy fidelity,” along with the attribution to Wordsworth, just off to their left. The sculpture Death Ship of No Port with a List (1969) demonstrates Westermann’s fine skill as a woodworker, while The Deerslayer (1969) shows off his use of odd materials — it’s a figure made of metal pipe with a head of deer horns — and ironic humor.

Wiley’s pieces examine variously our deteriorating environment, Eastern philosophy, wisdom (or lack thereof), social inequities, and an array of social-political subjects. The dunce cap features prominently in several of the works. It serves as a symbol of expression regarding the idiocies around us. For instance, in Dunce One (2009) — from a series of four works, each of which features one yellow cap decorated with words (and a lot of word play), phrases, and random imagery — features the phrase, “seems like it would be better to pay people to be good/cheaper than not helping them.” Not to be overshadowed by the abundance of text in most of these works is, indeed, Wiley’s talent as a painter; of particular note here are the pieces True Safety (2009) and Is This Double Dip Expression (2010).

Though very much about their time, this pair of artists, their work imbued with humanity, will and do endure

"Left Leg" by Catherine Wagner

Catherine Wagner’s photographs of splints (on show at Stephen Wirtz Gallery through December 18, 2010) — the medical devices used to stabilize injuries and often associated with war wounds — and antique prostheses are riveting. Each of these technically precise images shows one device against a flat black background in gentle, even light; the device appears to float in the space. Isolated, showing fine detail, these images are intense. Splints and prosthetics are highly personal. They’re held tight or molded to the body and worn for protection and recovery, repair. Thus, the title of the exhibition “Reparations,” implying making amends. It’s a loaded concept especially in this time of multiple international conflicts, and also an indirect path from which to approach such difficult subjects. Wagner points us in a hopeful direction.

Wagner deliberately chooses to photograph splints and prostheses made at various points through history, thus there is a didactic angle that displays the progression that’s been made in this field of medicine. For all of their references and dramatic portrayal, these are highly evocative pieces. For some, they illicit fear, repulsion, or sadness. But they also symbolize healing and help: everything will be set right, allowing for a return to normal life. Behind each object, we know there is a story, perhaps glorious, perhaps tragic, perhaps comic. The absence of the person who wore the device begs the question of his or her fate. And then they are, in many cases, intriguing simply as sculptural pieces. These direct, thought-provoking images convey the power of a well-chosen and expertly photographed subject.