Feature

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870

More than 200 images and objects on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art create a fascinating study of the human impulse to spy on one another.

San Francisco Museum of Modern ArtThrough April 17, 2011

It’s impossible to look away, said Sura Wood in Edge San Francisco. Like a gruesome car wreck on the side of a freeway, San Francisco MoMA’s “exciting journey into the forbidden” world of hidden and veiled cameras is equal parts irresistible and repellent. More than 200 images and objects create a fascinating study of the human impulse to spy on one another. Some of the photos feel “subversive and thrilling.” Others, especially the depictions of pain and violence, are “horrific.” But from Horace Engle’s seemingly benign 1888 snapshots of unsuspecting streetcar passengers to Bill Burke’s harrowing 1990 photo of a “naked amputee lying exposed and dazed on a gurney” in a Cambodian hospital, “violation is the name of the game.”

The unequal power relationships between shooters and subjects are what make the images so arresting, said Kenneth Baker in the San Francisco Chronicle. Indeed, the exhibition could have been called “Leverage,” since most every picture “tempts the viewer to imagine it as the stuff of extortion, espionage, intimidation.” Some of the most resonant pieces here aren’t very refined; more important is the thrill of seeing someone being robbed of their privacy—a thrill tinged with differing levels of discomfort. Old-timers will probably cringe, but the Facebook generation might not. With their “confidence in public amnesia,” they are more likely to “study with curiosity, but without shock, the mounting assault on privacy” that this exhibition traces.

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