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We’re all…exposed

June 4, 2010

Am I referring to the white limbs on show thanks to the gorgeous weather? Well no, but I am a firm believer in making the most of the sun when we can. Which is why it’s taken me a week to blog about Exposed, the new photography exhibition at Tate Modern. Although I visited on its opening day, it has, gasp, been too hot to blog.

First off, this exhibition is not for the faint-hearted. Or toddlers (there were a few when I was there). It’s seedy in places. Graphically violent in others. And introduces aspects of human behaviour which I found fascinating (not that I’m prone to graphic violence or seediness mind!).

The show traces the history of covert photography from Paul Strand’s use of a faux lateral lens to take secret pictures of poor immigrants in the early 20th century to modern methods of surveillance using satellites and CCTV. It focuses on the paparazzi, surveillance, documenting violence, voyeurism and unseen photographers such as street photographers.

There are some outstanding photographs in this exhibition. If a picture can speak a thousand words then Leonard McCombe’s 1956 photo of Hollywood screen siren Kim Novak being watched by a group of men, does exactly that. Sublime. As is Henri Cartier-Bresson’s man on a bicycle taken from the top of a spiral staircase in 1932.

Although there are a lot of “exposed” women in this show (I sound like a prudish Mary Whitehouse I know), the male form is not entirely overlooked. Girls, look out for Alair Gomes’ Beach Triptych taken with a telephoto lens in 1980 from his apartment overlooking Rio beach. Yes….sublime.

There is such a broad range here and by so many well-known photographers (Robert Frank, Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Helmut Newton for instance) that you’re bound to find pictures and ideas of interest. Or if not pictures, then items, such as shoes and walking canes with built-in hidden cameras.

The photographs may sometimes make you feel uncomfortable (the witnessing violence section which depicts brutal acts of war is difficult to stomach in places) but they’re certainly not boring. Tate Modern have taken a risk here. This is my kind of exhibition.

I found Kohei Yoshiyuki’s series “The Park” rather unsettling so I can imagine the furore when they were shown in Tokyo in 1979. For the first time, using a small camera and infrared flash, he’d captured a secret Japanese sexual sub-culture in which men hid behind bushes in parks to watch shagging couples, often trying to touch them unnoticed in the dark. In a similar vein, Arthur Fellig (nicknamed Weegee) used infrared to capture couples heavy petting at the cinema or on Coney island beaches in the 1940s. Viewing them, I felt like a voyeur viewing a voyeur’s work.

Exposed really makes you think about photography’s purpose, what is art, what is a fetish masked as art (when you see Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy’s pictures taken with homemade cameras you’ll see what I’m getting at), what is voyeurism (is photography merely a voyeuristic act?), and how secret photography reflects society, either accurately or inaccurately.

Exposed
runs at Tate Modern until 3 October. Buy tickets here.

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