When making photographs of people, we pretty much have two style choices: discreet or consensual. So the idea of an "unseen photographer" may seem pretty obvious. But the curators at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and London's Tate Modern have assembled a longitudinal study of the stolen image — from Brassai's underworld Paris of the 1930s to Robert Frank's '50s Americana. "Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera," the news release explains, gives a "provocative perspective on subjects both iconic and taboo."
Untitled (Atlanta), 1984
Harry Callahan/Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York/Tate Modern
Greta Garbo in the Club St. Germain, Paris, circa 1950s
Georges Dudognon/San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/Members of Foto Forum/Tate Modern
Street Scene, New York, 1928
Walker Evans/San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/Walker Evans Archive/Tate Modern
Marilyn Monroe, circa 1950s /International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
Weegee (Arthur H. Fellig/Tate Modern
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Both street and documentary photography pivot on this notion of an objective, unseen observer. Someone recently told me that a good photographer is like a good bass player — you don't notice him until something's wrong. So in a way, this exhibition forces focus on the person pointing the camera — at the person watching Marilyn Monroe as her dress blows up; watching New York City subway passengers as they sleep and read and daydream; watching migrant workers in Depression-era America.
It's kind of creepy, in a way, but that's also the point: The exhibition examines that tension between observation and voyeurism. We humans, after all, have a curiosity that borders on scrutiny. Think about a traffic jam after a car accident. Typically it's not caused by the accident, but by people slowing down to look. Maybe that's why we're drawn to photography: Maybe we're just nosy?