There’s a stereo daguerrotype on view that’s billed as being racy, but hard as I squint I can’t make it out. There are spies caught red-handed by the camera, but without the caption to tell me so, the image just looks like a bad photo of some guys in business suits, talking something over on an ordinary street. Many of the photographs puzzle me.
Some arrest me. A small video camera in one of the galleries aims at an abstract painting as blank as an unmarked Malevich. It seems senseless to film this black canvas. Suspecting a trick, I turn back to the camera and there I am, in the picture, among the witnesses to a 1915 lynching. Thanks to artist Oliver Lutz’s use of infrared technology, I appear in a vintage photograph that serves as proof of a murder, evidence of hate, and historical document. By so baldly turning the viewer into the subject, the work seems to ask, “Where do you stand? What is your relationship to this event–and to its contemporary afterlife? What if the same CCTV system inserted you into the Abu Ghraib photos?”
Many of the images in Exposed put viewers on the spot, ethically speaking. They’re not just about the photographer and the subject; intentions don’t just morph like magic into meanings. They are, often uncomfortably, about us. By looking, are we agreeing to what we see? Does the passage of time between then and now, or does the distance between here and there, us and them, let us off the hook? Is an emotional response enough? Why do we invade other people’s privacy? Is the meaning of the image different in a museum, in a news setting, in someone’s private photo collection or all over the internet? Should we protest the acts some of the images attest to? Should we write a letter, shed a tear, or just go on to the next image?
Beginning June 30, I’m posting a series of blogs that relate to the Walker exhibition, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870. The blog aims to provide a forum for conversation around themes laid out in the show: The Unseen Photographer, Voyeurism and Desire, Celebrity and the Public Gaze, Witnessing Violence, and Surveillance. Some of the issues raised have been alluded to in the catalogue and label copy: our right to look, the relationship between curiosity and compassion; private presence in public space; our responsibilities as witnesses; the power of institutions to watch us, our right to watch them and each other, secrecy and exposure.
A Tour Guide and Contemporary Arts Forum Guide at the Walker for more than a decade, I’m blogging as a correspondent and from the perspective of a viewer. There will be a week between posts for your responses and ideas. July 28 we’ll have an Open Field conversation to be continued in the galleries. Please join in–and check out the other programming associated with the exhibit as well.