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SFMOMA's Voyeurism and Surveillance Exhibit: Examining the Camera's Most Unsettling Uses

Currently on exhibit until April 17 at the SFMOMA, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870 explores the watching me, watching you phenomenon as it has evolved since the early days of the camera. In an era when cameras and recording devices are ubiquitous, impacting norms around privacy and exclusivity, this exhibit is more relevant than ever.

The exhibit is divided into distinct sub-themes: Voyeurism & Desire, Celebrity & the Public Gaze, Witnessing Violence, and Surveillance. Among the most famous pieces in Voyeurism is a projection of Andy Warhol's "Blow Job" (not sure the placement over double doors with an EXIT sign was intentional or not, but did not go unnoticed) and Mapplethorpe's "Man in Polyester Suit" (hung so that the subject's subject is at eye-level for someone standing at 5'5").

But more notably are pieces from Chris Verene and Cammie Touloui. The former is a piece from a series called "Camera Club," in which Verene used as the subject of his photos predators who sought to capitalize on the willingness of young, aspiring models to pose nude. While most of the pieces in the voyeurism section neglect the idea of surveillance, this piece exemplifies both and in a genius way. Also notable are two photographs from Cammi Toloui's "Lusty Lady" series, which were shot from behind the glass of the SF strip club's private booths during Toloui's stint as photojournalism student by day and stripper by night. As with much work that fits the exhibit's themes, the story behind the photo is as—if not more—important than the image itself.

The next section explores how celebrities captured on camera in public "reveal themselves" to us, the public. It also touches on the evolution of "assault journalism," which has become today's paparazzi. The curators chose work mainly by Italian photographers for this reason, notably a couple Galella pieces of Jackie O.

From celebrity we move into the violence section—one can think of it as a transition from the gossip column to news articles—which includes striking images the Gettysburg War, Nick Ut's famous photograph of children running from a burning village in Vietnam, and an amazing photograph of a mafia assassination victim by Letizia Battaglia. Shot from within the alley in which the body bled, onlookers are visible in the background of the photo, standing at the end of the alley. It's a spectacular image, and turns the camera back on the watchers.

Finally, there is the exhibit's surveillance section which attempts to explore the "distance between the subject watched and the watcher." This section includes some great political photographs from the Criminal Record office of Great Britain and the United States Government reconnaissance, but the one piece that's most fitting for this section is one that is simply a giant rectangle of black paint hung on the gallery wall. Only if a visitor reads the description or happens to turn around and see the small monitor facing the black rectangle will he or she realize that the rectangle is actually "The Lynching of Leo Frank" obscured with infrared paint, recorded with a surveillance camera on the opposite gallery wall, and broadcast on the monitor with the visitor's image added to the onlookers at the lynching. It's a brilliant piece, and makes up for some of the more lackluster images that could have been edited from this section.

Overall, the Exposed exhibit is an amazing collection of photographs and artifacts well worth the hour it takes to move through it. Just remember: no photography allowed.

Photo: Georges Dudognon, Greta Garbo in the Club St. Germain, ca. 1950s; gelatin silver print; Collection SFMOMA, Foto Forum purchase; © Georges Dudognon