Blogs Field Guide Around the Galleries

Family Adventures: 2011 in Review

From the organized chaos of Free First Saturday to the eloquent discoveries of Arty Pants: Your Tuesday Playdate, it has been quite a year in Family Programs at the Walker.  With each event carefully orchestrated by the devoted Walker staff I am reminded of the incredible company that surrounds me, working hard to provide an unmatched contemporary art adventure to kids and their […]

From the organized chaos of Free First Saturday to the eloquent discoveries of Arty Pants: Your Tuesday Playdate, it has been quite a year in Family Programs at the Walker.  With each event carefully orchestrated by the devoted Walker staff I am reminded of the incredible company that surrounds me, working hard to provide an unmatched contemporary art adventure to kids and their parents in the community.

Highlights from Free First Saturday include the Animation Station, a Free First Saturday activity led by Schell Hickel and Katie Maren.  Kids sculpted their own characters out of clay and put them to work in their own stop-motion animation.  In April Robin Schwartzman’s sculptural play space was set up for kids to interact with in the activity Jump On In!, an event accompanied by a slapstick puppet performanceChris Larson joined the kids in the Art Lab hot-gluing wooden structures for a project reminiscent of his piece in the Spectacular Vernacular exhibition.  July teemed with hip hop splendor during a full day of dance workshops led by Kenna Camara-Cottman, beat boxing, and graffiti demonstrations.  The summer culminated in a memorable LARP (Live Action Role Playing) battle on the field, featuring an exclusive visit by the Corporate Wizard, an event planned in conjunction with the Soap Factory.  Amanda Lovelee joined us for a day of community building in early Autumn, teaching us not to hesitate to meet our neighbor in a square dancing bonanza on Open Field.  October began with a bang when the Bakken Museum came to show kids how to construct rockets and build electric circuits while November and December were all about performance and design, Kaleena Miller and company performing the vibrant, tap dancing piece, Fleet and Kindra Murphy teaching the kids a thing or two about typeface design.

(more…)

A New Art on Call Tour That Focuses on Deep Description

Are you familiar with the Walker’s Art on Call program? It’s a way to access information about works of art—piecing together a personalized audio tour—through your mobile device, home phone, or computer.  The content varies, but frequently the stops feature the voices of artists and exhibition curators telling stories of objects or unpacking ideas. This […]

Are you familiar with the Walker’s Art on Call program? It’s a way to access information about works of art—piecing together a personalized audio tour—through your mobile device, home phone, or computer.  The content varies, but frequently the stops feature the voices of artists and exhibition curators telling stories of objects or unpacking ideas. This summer we introduced an alternative stop: visual descriptions of select artworks in the exhibition Midnight Party and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Visual description uses non-visual language to convey the visual world and offers an intense study of a work of art. The key physical components of an object are boiled down including how it exists in space, its surroundings. Take the opening lines from the visual description for Spoonbridge and Cherry:

“Enormous in scale, this fountain-sculpture offers a utensil and piece of fruit fit for a giant. Weighing around 7,000 pounds and stretching almost 30 feet into the air, Spoonbridge and Cherry is situated in the center of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The spoon spans a small pond ringed with native prairie grasses. During pleasant weather the grasses sway gently in the breeze, giving a sense of movement to the overall installation.”

The analysis isn’t targeting meaning or art history, but rather it’s a concentrated look at the anatomy of the object. Take a listen to the entire description: Visual description for Spoonbridge and Cherry.

Visual description is a particularly good access point to the visual arts for people who are blind. In fact, the visual description Art on Call stops originated from work the Walker was doing around its Open Door Accessibility Initiatives. Members from the Walker’s access advisory group along with education and curatorial staff selected objects to include in the project and tested the scripts penned by Lara Roy, a longtime museum educator and art historian with experience in the accessibility field.  Lara, now Director of Continuing Studies at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, worked at the Walker several years back, so her familiarity with the collection runs deep. Once our advisors signed off on the scripts and they were edited by our in-house editors it was time to bring them to life.

The voice for the stops is local actor, Stacia Rice. Stacia is a long-time access advocate, founder of Torch Theater, and regularly graces the Guthrie’s stage(s). She’s also hysterically funny and possesses a truly collaborative spirit. Tom Hambleton, sound magician at Undertone, produced the stops. The shots you see below show Stacia and Tom at work in Undertone’s Washington Avenue studios.

Stacia in mid-description

Stacia taking a break for a smile

Tom at the controls

Eager to listen to the end result, aren’t you! Here’s how…

Dial 612.374.8200 to enter the Art on Call program and then dial one or more of the following codes to access the content attached to them:

Introductory Stops

1465    Introduction to Open Door Accessibility Initiatives at the Walker

1466 Introduction to Visual Description

1467    General Introduction to the Walker Art Center

Midnight Party

1490    Introduction to the exhibition

1491    Francis Bacon, Head in Grey

1492    Matthew Barney, DRAWING RESTRAINT 7

1493    Frank Gaard, Untitled

1494    Robert Gober, Untitled Door and Door Frame

1495    Yayoi Kusama, Oven-Pan

1496    Kiki Smith, Kitchen

1497    Jana Sterbak, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic

1498    Angela Strassheim, Evidence No. 6

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

1051       Mark di Suvero, Arikidea

1057       Barry Flanagan, Hare on Bell on Portland Stone Piers

1041       Frank Gehry, Standing Glass Fish

1042       Dan Graham, Two-way Mirror Punched Steel Hedge Labyrinth

1049       Jenny Holzer, Selections from The Living Series

1489       Sol LeWitt, X with Columns

1036       Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Spoonbridge and Cherry

1045       George Segal, Walking Man

You can also go to newmedia.walkerart.org/aoc/index.wac and type in the work’s title in the search box to bring up the above stops and then listen.

While the initial intention was to offer this tour as a resource for our visitors who are blind or have low vision we believe this approach to viewing the art will appeal to all visitors. Tell us what you think. Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue adding to our visual description library.

 

 

Looking at Exposed: Coda and Invitation

This experiment in ethical looking has taken me from witnessing other people to viewing corporate, state and global institutions–trading visual places with the entities that watch us, that act on our behalf, control us, or all three.  Outside of “Exposed,” entire art exhibitions center on surveillance themes:  a fellow tour guide told me about a […]

This experiment in ethical looking has taken me from witnessing other people to viewing corporate, state and global institutions–trading visual places with the entities that watch us, that act on our behalf, control us, or all three.  Outside of “Exposed,” entire art exhibitions center on surveillance themes:  a fellow tour guide told me about a show that exposes Cold War spying on its citizens by the East German government.  On this side of the Cold War, the FBI’s files on U.S. citizens still make the news, while museums have looked at responses to old and new surveillance.  Self-surveillance as an art project can work as a personal act of conceptual resistance.

Making institutions themselves visible seems point up our vulnerability as subjects and also our responsibility as viewers. Last time I wrote about Trevor Paglen’s photograph of a chemical weapons plant and  Simon Norfolk’s image of Echelon transmitters. Several years ago, the Walker Art Center exhibit “Event Horizon” featured a photograph from Paul Shambroom’s “Security Series” that documents sites in the U.S. made and used for terrorist attack training.  “Exposed” also includes such a mock village for military training:

Shai Kremer, Urban Warfare Training Center, Panorama, Tze'elim, 2007. Chromogenic print. Collection SFMOMA. © Shai Kremer; photo: Ben Blackwell

Its emptiness reminds me of a stage set, its drama surely a coming street battle.  But once the battle is lost and won, what happens to the village?  What if this scene is afterwards and the little people in the foreground are responding to an electrical glitch that left the houses dark and the streets and minarets lit?  What if someone  offstage is planning schools and hospitals?  Or more chillingly, what if the schools and hospitals are part of the takeover plan?  Trying to imagine more than the bloodless soldier training the caption dictates frees me to think about warfare’s aims and consequences, about the democratic control of communities, state power and the care of humans.

I want to try on alternate readings for other images in the exhibition–the street and social reform photographs, the celebrity and voyeuristic images, the “surveillance style” photographs, the consciously posing subjects, the unaware and helpless subjects.  I want to bring the latent stories in the images to life, and give voice to the people visually represented.

Harry Callahan, Atlanta,1984. Dye transfer print. Collection SFMOMA. © The Estate of Harry Callahan, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

For this project in creative and hopefully ethical looking, I need your help: many different imaginations are better than one.  So, Thursday, August 25 I’m hosting an Open Field event to re-imagine the stories within “Exposed’s” images and re-think our relationship with the people in them.  Please check out this upcoming Game of Words on the Open Field website and put it on your calendar.

Looking at Exposed: Trading Surveillance Places

My project of looking ethically seems moot when “Surveillance” photographers switch the subject from human beings to institutions.  Images of a machine or building unencumbered by memories hardly inspires concern, respect, or reciprocity.  And the power of the intrusive camera is compromised by the relative power of institutions that can ward off prying eyes, confiscate memory […]

My project of looking ethically seems moot when “Surveillance” photographers switch the subject from human beings to institutions.  Images of a machine or building unencumbered by memories hardly inspires concern, respect, or reciprocity.  And the power of the intrusive camera is compromised by the relative power of institutions that can ward off prying eyes, confiscate memory chips, or make arrests.

Take top secret military sites, for example.  A chemical  and biological weapons testing complex is no poor immigrant blinking in the light of a magnesium flash:

Trevor Paglen, Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground/Dugway, UT/Distance ~42 miles/10:51 a.m., 2006, 2006. Chromogenic print. Collection SFMOMA. © Trevor Paglen

The Dugway Proving Ground has so much control over its image that you can barely see it. When I clicked on its Google-listed web site to learn more about the place, I was stopped at the virtual perimeter by a blaring error message complete with my ICP address. Making public what an institution wants to keep private takes stronger eyes than mine.

To get his image, photographer Trevor Paglen resorted to astronomy instruments to peer across the thick atmosphere separating him from the site. Even so, he hadn’t a long enough lens to make this invisible thing knowable, or to strip it naked for our scrutiny.

Instead, the indefinite image suggests a sublime landscape–transcendent as a painted heaven or wilderness empire. All this photographic document of distance can do, as long as its caption remains attached, is to make the military plant dimly present. Is this enough information to dispel our ignorance? To convince us to agree or disagree with these activities done on our watch?  Or is the whole thing just too far away to worry about?

Simon Norfolk’s also-ghostly  transmission towers from his series on the Ascension Islands are the instruments of a global dataveillance program.  They are also the objects of his concern about democratic controls on such projects.  The image alone, severed from its series, is an enigmatic play of wispy gray on gray.  It left me wondering about the fragility of technology rather than worrying alongside its author about the effect of shadowy global organizations on democracy and world peace.

Thomas Demand’s video loop of an ordinary surveillance camera seems a more obvious cautionary image: we are all suspects now it seems to say, monitored by machines whose capability to control people is a matter for their manufacturers to crow about. Instead of ignoring this brave new phenomenon, perhaps we should fight back:  map those CCTVs, zap them,  find out where to look and how to hide.

I did look, at least  for an image of Demand’s “Camera” to post as the touchstone for these questions about privacy, visual control, accountability and security,  It turned out the camera image was originally shown with another piece of the artist’s, “Embassy,”  which re-creates a nondescript Nigerian embassy office, where the early 2001 theft of some stationery seems to have changed the world.

That context changed the way I saw “Camera,” as though the image had been recaptioned. Instead of an all-seeing Cyclops, the fake camera became a blind witness to a future history it was helpless to prevent. Yawing compulsively on its cardboard wall, it seemed neutered, its soundtrack more annoying in the gallery than alarming.  What can any camera see?  What can it expose? Who owns it? Who watches its images?  Who has the patience to watch?

The issues these images raise seem more political than ethical, unless the two are bound up with one another.  Do we retreat into the delights of voyeurism and let power take care of its own business?  As viewers, do we accept the mystery  of hard-to-photograph state and corporate institutions?  Do we try to see through the distances that separate us from them?  If we look at photographs that do help us see our society’s well-protected institutions, are we responsible for this knowledge? Can we responsibly look away?

Postscript:  The August 8 screening at the Summer Music and Films program, (“I’ve Got My Eyes on You”) is “1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.”  Our surveillance society has also been anticipated by an abundance of  surveillance sci fi novels, documented by countless photographs, and has engendered the academic discipline of Surveillance Studies. Countless web sites describe this environment, capitalize on it, advocate resistance or seek to understand it.

 

 

 

Looking at Exposed: Surveillance Style

The Surveillance photographs in Exposed lead me away from the project of looking ethically at another’s image–but gradually.  Take Benjamin Lowy’s  recent war photograph; it has a familiar voyeuristic quality that holds my attention: Lowy presents another war victim, a frightened civilian caught in the green haze of military-issue lenses that render him visible in […]

The Surveillance photographs in Exposed lead me away from the project of looking ethically at another’s image–but gradually.  Take Benjamin Lowy’s  recent war photograph; it has a familiar voyeuristic quality that holds my attention:

Benjamin Lowy, Iraq Perspectives II #8, 2003-2007. Chromogenic print. Courtesy the artist; © Benjamin Lowy

Lowy presents another war victim, a frightened civilian caught in the green haze of military-issue lenses that render him visible in the dark.  Or is this a dangerous enemy? The night-penetrating technology lets me see and connect with the human subject but weirdly distances him at the same time.  I’m witnessing the plight of another, secure in my own identification with the well-armed photographer, allied with the powerful soldiers, teetering on the edge of compassion.  It’s an equivocal position.  Is this the visual fog of war?

With an institutional surveillance camera, however, moral values of fairness and reciprocity are beside the point.  The same goes for concern and respect. The camera looks.  Who can resist?  Several photographers in the “Surveillance” section assume this position of relative power,  setting up psychological dramas of potential danger or suspense. Yoko Ono has a silent cameraman follow and harass a young woman to the point of collapse.

Bruce Nauman’s monotonous video of an office at night  keeps frustrating my expectations that something, even the fleeting appearance of a fugitive mouse, will happen.  Sophie Calle arranges to be followed by an unwitting private detective, contrasting her journalistic jottings and longings with the detective’s dull photographs and dry notations. The “surveillance-style” images in Exposed put on view the experience of being surveilled as a psychological relationship, almost a dance with that irresistible camera.

Shizuka Yokomizo, Stranger No. 2, 1999. Chromogenic print. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. ; © Shizuka Yokomizo

If the surveillance society is the new normal, we seem fully capable of agreeing to its everyday exposures. Some people perform exhibitionistically; most expose themselves more modestly on social media.  Is this voluntary self-exposure (explored in the Walker’s 2010 Talent Show) a healthy adaptation to the society we live in? Do the images we post stand roguishly against the boring dataveillance about us that circulates uncontrollably in the cloud?

Contemporary surveillance by an institution is absent from Exposed.   The declassified spy photographs included are old Cold War documents, the stuff of legend and vintage foreign affairs. There are no irradiated airline passengers, protesters at global trade negotiations, red-light runners, terrorists at the tube station, or simply ordinary folk making their way in the photographically visible world.

Without actual surveillance footage to compare to the make-believe scenarios of “surveillance style”, it’s hard to think about the difference between them, between one human looking voyeuristically at another, and a robot machine impartially monitoring everyone.   Do the proliferating new panopticons make us behave?  Who controls them?  If we can’t sense them, can they really see us?  What’s the relationship between surveillance and citizens, consumers and other human subjects?

What Exposed does include include are photographs that turn the tables on the powers behind surveillance, or try to. Flesh and blood photographers look through their lenses at the sometimes barely visible institutions that transcend and know us all.

Next time:  Surveillance:  Trading places

 

Looking at Exposed: Surveillance, Part One

“Surveillance” adds a new element to Exposed. Thus far, the cameraman or woman has been just that–a human being.  He or she has photographed other people in the tenement, on the street, in the dark, in the park, on the battlefield or gurney.  The man (or woman) with a camera begins  an unequal relationship with […]

“Surveillance” adds a new element to Exposed. Thus far, the cameraman or woman has been just that–a human being.  He or she has photographed other people in the tenement, on the street, in the dark, in the park, on the battlefield or gurney.  The man (or woman) with a camera begins  an unequal relationship with another where the power’s behind the lens. But “Surveillance” intimates a new character behind the lens, and it is inhuman.

No one works a surveillance camera and most of the time no one looks at the images. It’s just an “objective” machine impartially recording whatever happens into its sights for posterity or for erasure.  The camera may not be hidden, but it’s irresistible.

Preserving the subject’s dignity is hardly an issue.  There’s no question of reciprocity or fairness.  Surveillance and compassion don’t walk hand in hand and ethical surveillance has to be a contradiction in terms.

Exposed‘s surveillance photographs have an appropriately impersonal tone, including  those made by people working for a governmental authority. These are mostly archival images of shady transactions from the Cold War era;  for me they have a strange ambiguity that the captions don’t quite clear up.  There are also surveillance images of potential criminals, under suspicion because of their resistance to the legal status quo.  To me these potential enemies of the state/protesters look natural, almost comical, more earnest than dangerous.

But the photographs that interest me most in this section are not real surveillance images at all.  They are taken by photographers on their own authority.  Some fall into what I’d call the surveillance style:  it takes on the power of the unattended camera in the service of voyeuristic looking.

Others do something very different.  That is, they turn the tables, or try to, on surveillance itself.  They take on a subject without a human face:  the power behind the institutional surveillance camera. It’s one thing to turn a camera on a relatively powerless human subject or on oneself.  It’s another to expose Big Brother, his little descendants, or the less than visible institutions behind them.

More on Surveillance is coming next.

Meanwhile the Open Field event, Talking About/Looking at Exposed  happens July 28.  Take a look at the whole exhibition, count cameras, recaption photographs and weigh in with your responses.

 

Looking at Exposed: “Witnessing Violence”

Many decades before he captured Paris Hilton weeping in a police car, Nick Ut took an iconic photograph of Kim Phúc fleeing an American napalm attack in agony.  It’s not exactly the photographer’s change of subject that concerns me, but the fact that none of the photographs in the “Violence” section of Exposed were taken […]

Many decades before he captured Paris Hilton weeping in a police car, Nick Ut took an iconic photograph of Kim Phúc fleeing an American napalm attack in agony.  It’s not exactly the photographer’s change of subject that concerns me, but the fact that none of the photographs in the “Violence” section of Exposed were taken in this century.

That  should put a safe historic distance between me and the images. Oliver Lutz’s 2009 trick of inserting museum viewers into the crowd that surrounds a lynched body uses a photograph nearly a century old, instead of say, the Abu Ghraib snapshots. Lutz puts the us in the middle of a bad history, but it is history, and time has a wonderful way of diluting responsibility.

Age aside, the  images in “Violence”  don’t always affect me as I think they will or should.  This one  reminds me weirdly of the sadistic photographs in the “Voyeurism” section:

Tom Howard, The Electrocution of Ruth Snyder, 1928. Gelatin silver print. Collection SFMOMA.

Was there a question in here about character, about crime and just punishment or the definition of “cruel and unusual?”  Instead of provoking thought about society and justice, this awful throned figure, her attendants cropped out of the image, makes me wonder about Death itself and its boundary with Life. Given the subject, this was not the ethical looking I was aiming for.

It is the images of the harmed but living that touch me (Bill Burke’s amputee in the Hôpital Calmette, Phnom Penh, for example). Here, respectful attentiveness to another’s life seems like a nearly reverent act. And yet, images of  massacred remains as  in Susan Meiselas‘s photograph of a killing field in Nicaragua, fail to engage my humanistic concern. The corpses are permanently other, objects for me of scrutiny rather than pity.  Instead of compassion, I feel horror at the barbarism–somewhere outside the photograph, and surely with no connection to me–that made them so.

Does an ethical response to images of violence begin in feelings or in thought?  Do the values of compassion and justice require different approaches?  Should I care for the victims or stop the killers?  Is atrocity a problem rooted in psychology or in society?

Malcolm Browne, Thich Quang Duc, Buddist priest in Southern Vietnam, burns himself to death to protest the government’s torture policy against priests, June 11, 1963, 1963. Gelatin Silver Print. Collection of Alan Lloyd Paris; © Associated Press/Malcom Browne

In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag tackled images of atrocity, how we  respond to seeing them, and how we should respond.  She recognized that horrific sights can fascinate and that feeling sympathy only leads to feeling innocent of responsibility. Instead she urged “paying attention” to what images mean, “thinking” about where responsibility for savagry lies, and considering the possibility of action.

Of course we haven’t protested, thought, or wept state warfare or human cruelty out of existence yet, not since Goya’s Disasters of War, not since Alexander Gardner’s Civil War dead, not since Nick Ut’s crying Vietnamese girl, not since the abused of Abu Ghraib.

Effectiveness or its lack doesn’t account for the continuing power of these images. The dog in this old news photo  is always seconds away from closing in on his victim:

.  

United Press International, Suffolk, Virginia, Race Confrontation, May 6, 1964, 1964. Gelatin silver print. Collection SFMOMA. © United Press International, Inc.

The print’s  graininess makes the event recorded  seem slightly unreal, like a bad dream come back to haunt a guilty conscience.  Is racism  in this country fading away like an old print?  Does it keep repeating, morphing perhaps into new forms, finding new victims?

It still seems odd that a selection of images of mostly state-sponsored violence includes nothing contemporary.  Are we off the political hook for fresh inhumanities undertaken on our behalf?  Are we waiting for news to turn into elegy? Will images deliver us from doing evil?

Next time:  Surveillance.

Postscript:  The war images in this section of Exposed remind me of Wilfred Owen’s powerful poem about death in the trenches.  Do you have links to more contemporary war poems?

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at Exposed: “Celebrity and the Public Gaze”

Many of the “Voyeurism “  photographs in Exposed  needed no faces.  But “Celebrity” photographs depend on faces, on names, on recognition, on a well-known persona caught by chance, unready and often unwilling: Celebrities need fans, but what about unmanageable voyeurs? Trading anonymity for fame means  tending a public  image that paparazzi seem eager to deflate with unflattering views […]

Many of the “Voyeurism “  photographs in Exposed  needed no faces.  But “Celebrity” photographs depend on faces, on names, on recognition, on a well-known persona caught by chance, unready and often unwilling:

Georges Dudognon, Greta Garbo in the Club St. Germain, ca. 1950s. Gelatin silver print. Collection SFMOMA © Georges Dudognon.

Celebrities need fans, but what about unmanageable voyeurs? Trading anonymity for fame means  tending a public  image that paparazzi seem eager to deflate with unflattering views and intimations of bad behavior:

Marcello Geppetti, (detail) Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, 1962. Gelatin silver prints. Courtesy Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco; © Eredi Geppetti; photo: Ben Blackwell for SFMOMA.

What’s the point? Do we want to see that the famous are also human, just like us? Do we want to celebrate them?  Adore, humanize, tease?  Or do we want blood?  Do we share a kind of Schadenfreude, a guilty pleasure when the high and mighty walk around off-duty in schlumpy clothes or better yet, when they fall from grace?

Nick Ut, Paris Hilton is seen through the window of a police car as she is transported from her home to court by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in Los Angeles on Friday, June 8, 2007, 2007. Chromogenic print. © Associated Press/Nick Ut.

What does this apparently weeping woman mean to us?  Earlier, the social reform photographs included in Exposed made me think about conflicting values: social justice trumping respect in gazing at those helpless to resist.  With prying paparazzi, it often seems Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “democratization of dignity” has reversed and become the spread of contempt.

Anyone who’s flipped through a copy of People magazine in a waiting room knows the fascination of these unnecessary and often mean photographs. But Exposed presents these images in a museum setting and asks for a different kind of viewing.

What have we learned?  How have we been transformed? Do we muse about the life of the celebrity, about the social needs of fans and their subcultures?  About the relationship of the public and the famous, and the persona that stands between them?  Or the human need for relief from public attention and the unending performance it requires?

Ron Galella, What Makes Jackie Run? Central Park, New York City, October 4, 1971. Gelatin silver print. Collection SFMOMA. © Ron Galella, Ltd

Stolen images make reciprocity difficult.  And voyeurism provides poor conditions for an act of respectful (or awestruck) witnessing. I keep looking for  a  visual relationship with the photographed subject and end instead, wondering about the psychological and social relationships that the photographer didn’t focus on, but that managed to make it into the picture anyway. Sometimes critical looking makes more sense than ethical looking, or maybe they’re mixed up together in an an-too-human stew.

Images of violence are coming next.

Looking at Exposed: Voyeurism and Respect

Once you’ve bitten into it, you can’t just turn away from a bad apple’s taste. Short of leaving, you can’t avoid the smell in a smoky room; the feel of water when you’re in it is inescapable; there’s only so much street noise you can tune out. But seeing is different: it is the most […]

Once you’ve bitten into it, you can’t just turn away from a bad apple’s taste. Short of leaving, you can’t avoid the smell in a smoky room; the feel of water when you’re in it is inescapable; there’s only so much street noise you can tune out. But seeing is different: it is the most voluntary of the senses.  You can close your eyes to what you don’t want to see. You’re free to choose; you’re responsible.

I considered using my freedom of visual choice to skip the “Voyeurism and Desire” section of Exposed; many of its images made me uncomfortable. But some did not.  Nan Goldin’s sometimes brutally honest images of  (consenting) friends, relatives and self don’t, as I’ve said, seem voyeuristic.

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in bed, New York City, 1983; detail from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency; 1979-1996. Whitney Museum of American Art. © Nan Goldin

Acting as a kind of participant-documentarian, she invites me to imagine the feelings and experiences of her fellow subjects and leaves me the space to connect respectfully, without actually entering her scene.

It’s hard, though, to respect this bent over woman, unwittingly exposing her vaguely clad derriere to a hidden camera.

Miroslav Tichý, Untitled, ca. 1950s-1980s; gelatin silver print and ink. Collection SFMOMA. © Miroslav Tichý / Foundation Tichý Ocean

This is the look of a secretive voyeur, and I don’t want it. It’s been noted, though, that Tichy’s works are his response to government repression in the former Czechoslovakia and suggested that he identified with his subjects. Do we? Or do we identify with an objectifying (male) gaze, gloating in its relative power?  Does the image’s dreamy blur, an effect of Tichy’s jury-rigged camera, express a sad yearning to touch?  Or does it read as creepy?

Another group of “Voyeuristic” images in the exhibition look at voyeurism itself.

Shizuka Yokomizo, Stranger No. 2, 1999. Chromogenic print. Collection SFMOMA. © Shizuka Yokomizo

It’s not the couple making out that seems to be caught in flagrante here; it’s the crawling figure–another photographer?–and the man lurking in the shadows, his hand on his fly. This photo pulls back from the scene, primal or otherwise; it preserves the identity if not the privacy of the actors, and instead watches the watchers. Who has the power in this photograph and to whom do we owe respect?

The posed near-portraits (by Robert Mapplethorpe, Man Ray and Nobuyoshi Araki, especially) of presumably consenting models give me pause. Some offer a brave and even beautiful self-exposure; others make me wish for a sign announcing that no models were hurt in the process of making this photograph. Voyeurism is one thing; victimization another and some subjects seem like sacrifices to our bad appetites.  Do the scratched-out faces and masks in E.J. Bellocq‘s Storyville Portraits rob these women of their individuality or confer protective anonymity?

Some of “Voyeurism’s” photographs stretch my loyalty to the old idea that “nothing human is alien to me.”   Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose ethical thinking inspires my search for ethical looking, uses this mantra in an essay where he also claims a belief that “everybody matters.”  How can everybody matter if humiliating others is a habit everybody shares?

How does the value of upholding the dignity of every person square with mainstream sexting and everyday visits to porn sites? Do voyeuristic photographs in a museum lead us to criticize, or condition us to live comfortably in a world where upskirt and downblouse shots, legal or not, circulate freely on the web?

If the desire to look at voyeuristic images is just the nasty side of the human condition, common and natural, is turning away from them a moral response or just squeamish hypocricy?   In some of these photographs,  the possibility of respectful looking seems beside the point.  How can you feel empathy  with a sex object?  If vicarious respect isn’t always possible, is it always necessary?  Should we rest easy knowing that every photograph is a fiction?  Or should we stop looking?

Postscript:  The August 1 film in the Walker’s “Summer Music and Movies” series is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.  It’s no skin flick, but Rear Window is Exhibit A in discussions of cinematic construction of the dominating, objectifying male gaze and voyeuristic looking.

Looking at Exposed: “The Unseen Photographer” and Curiosity

How far away do you have to stand to respect a stranger’s personal space? Hailing distance? Talking distance? Handshake distance? How about close enough to hug? In public spaces–on the street or in public transportation where people crowd together–respecting another’s privacy has to do with optical as much as actual distance: stop staring; keep your […]

How far away do you have to stand to respect a stranger’s personal space? Hailing distance? Talking distance? Handshake distance? How about close enough to hug? In public spaces–on the street or in public transportation where people crowd together–respecting another’s privacy has to do with optical as much as actual distance: stop staring; keep your eyes to yourself. Don’t make eye contact.

Some of the “Unseen Photographers” violate such mannerly or self-protective norms with the help of hidden cameras and without the cover of social reform. They’re walking around the city, riding on the subway, catching strangers on the fly, letting the lens do the staring, indulging, perhaps, simple human curiosity.

Walker Evans. (Subway Passenger, New York), 1941. Gelatin silver print. SFMOMA

This duped subway passenger and I connect only through this stolen image. She had no chance to agree or object to the snap of a hidden shutter.  So stop staring.  Or keep looking?  Just for the sake of curiosity? That might not be so aggressive:  meaning something like eagerness to know, curiosity is rooted in an old word for “care” or “heal.” But I’m not sure that my looking enacts some visual version of caring.

Some years before Evans made this photo a French film director said of snapshots that he’d like to offer friendship or even love to people that he didn’t know and didn’t want to know.  I’d back off from such emotion; this unknown woman sitting a handshake away is too prickly to invite me to linger.  Yet I do want to redeem our unbalanced relationship where I have the power to look and she had only the power to be herself.  I want to think that her ordinary otherness together with her self-possession claim from me a nod of respect and that respect is a just response.

The unseen photographer today still deals with the problem of curiosity and dignity. Contemporary takes on the theme of strangers on a train can leave subjects the privacy of their inwardness; catching  drivers unaware keeps their anonymity safe for now, (until face-recognition software outs us all, all the time).  But is preserving privacy, a kind of freedom from disturbance, the same as respecting dignity?

It’s easier, I think,  to respect people you’re not hiding from. Garry Winogrand’a street scenes read like mini-dramas performed by camera-wise, street-wise people who can take care of themselves, thank you very much.

Garry Winogrand, New York, 1969. Gelatin silver print. Collection SFMOMA

The image, which is both  connection and the distance between us, speaks to the subjects’ autonomy.  Out in the open, I  feel more comfortable facing the girl’s resistant scowl than trapped on the subway inside Evans’s hidden camera.  I’m happy to visually re-live the photographer’s moment of chutzpah, to enjoy the ease by which a poised multitasker can shoot a look and take a kiss at the same time.  If this image enacts dueling gazes between the camera and the subject, the fight seems fair.   This middle, arm’s length distance which prevents both identification and othering, seems a safe enough space for all of us.

Many of Alec Soth’s photographs exhibited recently at the Walker seemed to open up a more poetic, less combative space for looking at strangers–with their permission.  Is an open exchange between the photographer and the subject necessary for ethical looking?

Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency appears in the Exposed exhibition under the theme of “Voyeurism and Desire” a subject matter that surely challenges the process of giving respect while capturing images.

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in bed, New York City, 1983; detail from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency; 1979-1996. Whitney Museum of American Art. © Nan Goldin; image: courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

But Goldin is no stranger to the community of friends that she photographs: her subjects, including herself, are her equals.  Often she puts the camera inside hugging or hitting distance. Somehow though she leaves enough room  in the room to leave her photographed people their dignity and mine, too, as long as I don’t get swept away by the soundtrack that goes with the slide show. As long as I remember I’m on this side of the photograph.

Postscript:  Even though the people he happens upon seems like local color rather than individuals, Frank O’Hara’s lunch hour street rambles seem like an appropriate accompaniment to New York street photography.  Any other suggestions?

More Info

 

 

 

Previous
Next