Exposed, Tate Modern

    Do you know who sprang to mind as soon as I entered Exposed, Tate Modern’s fascinating examination of peeping-tom photography, and saw Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s picture of a pretty New York girl lost in her own thoughts, whose portrait diCorcia had taken in the street without her knowledge?

    Van Gogh. I began thinking of Van Gogh. Not because the girl looked anything like him or even belonged to his century, but because Van Gogh, being violently unstable, would probably have attacked diCorcia with a razor had he caught him surreptitiously taking his picture.

    If there was one thing you did not do to Van Gogh, it was take his picture.

    Which is why there are only three photographs of him. Two of those were taken when he was a youngster and had no choice in the matter. The third is a mysterious back view of the artist sitting by the Seine. We know it is him only because the friend he was with identified him later. Van Gogh was petrified of the camera. At his deepest, most primitive level, he saw having a photo taken as an act of possession. When the camera took your picture, he believed, it stole your soul.

    All of which is relevant because this timely display has set out to investigate photography’s dangerous and controversial desire to take pictures without permission. The show’s full title is Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera, and I imagine it was prompted by debates in Britain about matters of privacy and the surveillance society. Think of CCTV. Think of News of the World stings. Think of the secret filming in a Donal MacIntyre investigation. Think of Sarah Ferguson and John Higgins.

    The show is certainly pertinent. On its Question Time level, it touches on interesting political issues such as data collection and the right to privacy. But that is not why, on its deeper and more valuable artistic level, Exposed is so riveting. From the first gallery, with diCorcia’s innocently smiling New York girl caught unawares, to Sophie Calle’s outrageous final project, in which she pokes about in the hotel rooms of strangers (she got herself a job as a chambermaid, then went from room to room rifling through the guests’ possessions, trying on their perfumes, stealing their shoes and photographing their luggage), we seem to be on such shaky moral ground. When the uninvited camera begins poking about in other people’s intimacy zones, it commits crimes that feel closer to rape than to theft.

    DiCorcia grabbed his photographs of unsuspecting passers-by on the streets of New York in 2001 with a hidden flash. As they walked past, they triggered the flash and the camera went off. There was no time to be surprised. No time to put on a camera face. On the wall opposite, 30 years earlier, Walker Evans did much the same with a camera that could actually see around corners. It worked at right angles to its subject. So Evans could point it at the people sitting opposite him on the subway while actually photographing the ones to his right.

    The type of camera Evans used to record his battered victims of the city is on show here, alongside a selection of other intriguing gadgets that were employed in the earlier days of photography to spy on the unsuspecting. There’s a camera that looks like a fob watch. A camera hidden in the end of a walking stick. And, most ridiculous, a camera in the heel of a shoe. All of which serves to prove that photography is a guilty pleasure with an intrinsically ropey relationship to trust.

    Image after image feels as if it is trespassing. In 1916, Paul Strand used the right-angle camera to single out characterful faces in the Broadway crowd, and, because they do not know that they are being looked at, these mad-eyed inhabitants of early New York appear even more fiercely lost than they might have done had they made some effort to pose. People look different on camera when they do not know they are being photographed. More internalised. More private.

    While the first few rooms of the show are crammed with heartbreaking photojournalism by photography’s famous early names — Strand, Evans, Cartier-Bresson — the next few are given over to steamy voyeurism. As soon as the camera was invented, it began energetically peeping into other people’s sex lives. Anonymous Victorians stare up the petticoats of reclining actresses. This girl shows you her bottom. That one exposes her legs. The camera’s ability to spy on strangers from a distance was clearly one of its most appealing early selling points.

    It remains so to this day. In the 1990s, Merry Alpern began peeping through the window of a brothel on Wall Street to see what the nation’s bankers were up to at lunchtime. It wasn’t banking. Miroslav Tichy, a disturbed Czech photographer of the Soviet era, whose camera was confiscated because of his antisocial behaviour, fashioned a makeshift replacement for himself out of cardboard and plastic, then used it to take fuzzy pictures of farm girls leaning over. Not for a second did the farm girls imagine that the cardboard camera was working. And anyone who thinks “dogging” is a modern invention should examine the sneaky pictures Kohei Yoshiyuki took of the nocturnal antics in a Tokyo park in 1971.

    It’s X-rated stuff. Some will wish to avert their eyes. But it proves that the past was just as naughty as the present. It is also easier to look at than the next tranche of material, which deals with the covert witnessing of violence. I do not recall ever having seen a more harrowing image than the one recorded by Susan Meiselas in Nicaragua in 1981, when she came across half a rebel body on a hillside near Managua. The other half had been tossed elsewhere by the National Guard. The things humans are capable of when they think nobody is looking.

    Exposure’s final exposure is that surveillance itself is hardly new. Back in 1913, Big Brother in Britain was already secretly photographing the suffragettes, recording their names, ages and hair colour. The camera may have increased in range and taken to the air, but its driving urge — to peep where it should not be peeping — remains fixed.

    This is an impressive event. Crammed with memorable images, it tackles its subject with care and astuteness. Although the show set out to investigate voyeurism and surveillance, it ended up confirming in me something less specific: the raw power of photography.

    Van Gogh did not want his picture taken because he was afraid that the camera would suck the life out of him, then keep it. I’m not sure he was entirely wrong.