There is a part of human nature that has a desire to see, and also to be seen. In today's society it's everywhere. We soak up reality television and social networking sites, entering people's daily lives, and we exhibit ourselves through status updates and Facebook photographs. It's a way of connecting; of validating our existence.
The title of the exhibition doesn't capture one of its major themes: exhibitionism. There are a number of photographs that are either staged or have the complicity of the subjects being photographed.
For example, in Blow Job, a film by Andy Warhol, an uncredited Deveren Bookwalter receives fallatio as the camera captures his facial expressions in slightly slow motion. While the film certainly is voyeuristic in the sense that both the person behind the camera, and the audience are peeking into what would normally be an intimate act, it is also true that the subject is very much aware of being filmed. It's a moment of sharing and perhaps exaggerating -- just a touch -- for the benefit of the watchers.
In Chizuka Yokomizo's series of photographs called Stranger, the photographer sent anonymous letters asking people if they would stand at their window, alone, with the room lights on at a specific time of night so she could photograph them from the street. If they didn't wish to participate, they could simply close the curtains.
In Yokomizo's Stranger #2, the female subject stands at her window, lips pressed, grasping onto the side of a chair as she gazes out the window. There is an aura of fear, but also anticipation. Though she's guarded, she's a willing participant, curious about the invisible voyeur on the other side of the glass. In Stranger #1, a male subject stands in his boxer shorts as he talks on the phone and also glances at the window. There's almost a teasing, playful quality to what he has chosen to wear for his rendezvous.
Some photographs seem less a conversation between the subject and viewer and more one-sided. Pieces such as Robert Mapplethorpe's Man in Polyester Suit, where a man's penis is sticking out of his trousers, or Nobuyoshi Araki's Kinbaku, featuring a woman tied up in intricate knots, are not so much capturing a moment of a person's intimate life but staging a provocative image. While in the cases of Mapplethorpe and Araki it may well be true that the subject was complicit in creating the image, but they appear to be more forced, more manipulated, and therefore less interesting.
Other photographs are more candid. In Garry Winogram's New York, 1969, a couple is kissing outside of a building with a young girl next to them. The young girl is looking at the photographer and the woman making out seems to notice the camera just as the photograph is taken. It's kind of delightful to see that moment of recognition, but also unsettling. On the one hand, the couple was performing an intimate act in a public place, but if it's true that the photograph wasn't staged, there is also an invasiveness about it. That's even more so for Miroslav Tichy's photograph untitled, a blurry rear shot of a woman in a white dress. For years, Tichy took thousands of photographs of women in his hometown of Kyjov in the Czech Republic with hand-made cameras. No matter how aesthetically pleasing the image are, there's just something rather creepy about the pure voyeurism of his work -- a voyeurism that has no give and take. It's simply taking.
Both in the Tichy photograph and other examples throughout the exhibit -- especially photographs taken of violent situations -- the moral role of the photographer is examined. If you see someone in danger, or in need of help, and instead of helping you photograph them, does that make you an artist or does it make you a jerk? Brassaï's A Man Dies in the Street is a horrific series of photographs where a man collapses outside the photographer's window, and the artist takes pictures as people approach the man and eventually carry him away. Was there no thought to running out to see if the man could be helped?
Oliver Lutz has an amazingly powerful installation titled The Lynching of Leo Frank, which points to the viewer's own role in the presence of violence. What first appears to be a canvas painted black is revealed, in the adjacent notes, to have an underpainting based on a postcard of a lynching scene (apparently it was a popular practice to put such images on postcards). When you turn around, you see the underpainting, using infrared video, and yourself, forcing you to see yourself as an observer of the scene. It sums up the whole exhibit in a way. No matter how disturbing any of the images are, here we are, looking at them. We are just as much voyeurs as any of the photographers featured.
Finally, the exhibit also features quite a few surveillance photos. It's an interesting curatorial connection, especially in today's society where there is constant surveillance both through security cameras, but also through social networking sites that are to a certain extent monitored by both law enforcement and corporate America. We are all constantly being watched -- just as we are also constantly watching.