Read the papers: modern life is symbolised by the recalcitrant mosquito swarm of the paparazzi; the beleaguered celebrity constant prey to the hordes of vicious fucks with the telephoto lenses.  And well, yeah, they are.  But then they also have their bodyguards, expensive lawyers, millions of pounds in their back pockets from selling the non-pap photos of their firstborn, plus an apparently incurable desire to eat in restaurants that happen to have hordes of those vicious paparazzi fucks outside.  You win some, you lose some.

Tate Modern’s sporadically fascinating new photography exhibition – Street & Studio: An Urban History of Photography – tells another story though: the control that a photographer can wield over the lives of those who have neither resources nor power.  This mastery is a truly double-edged sword.  The documentary evidence of cruelty, war, poverty and pestilence has often proved a vital catalyst for social change.  On the other hand, the intrusion into the personal misery (or even just mundanity) of those whom are otherwise nameless, penniless and occasionally also oblivious to their role as subject, raises some weighty ethical concerns.

 

 

This is an exhibition of numerous intertwining narratives.  As with so many photography shows, the sheer quantity of images makes it difficult to absorb all that you see; interest levels ebb and flow palpably throughout.  Moreover though, while its overall theme – the impact of street photography and its subsequent dialectic with the traditional studio shot – is addressed somewhat patchily, the real value of the exhibition is the freedom it provides for us to join our own dots between themes across contrasting eras.  There have already been insightful reviews of the full show in both the Guardian and Observer, so here I shall concentrate instead on the theme that jumped out at me on first viewing: the issue of photography and consent, informed or otherwise.

The image above is by Walker Evans, one of a series of Subway Portraits that he took in New York between 1938 and 1941.  The selection of these images shown in Street and Studio is suitably captivating, and should be of particular interest to the thousands of tube-surfers who will find their introspective air familiar even many decades on.  They provide an obvious contrast to the work of Wolfgang Tillmans (below) in the same room: staged images that seem artificial not so much for the use of the photographer’s friends as models but because of their sheer clarity of vision.  The faces-in-armpits close-cropping is true enough, but the London Underground’s perennial grime can rarely have looked so primary-coloured or radiant (I suspect Transport for London may have rustled up a few brand new trains when they heard about the Tillmans project).

 

 

Tellingly, Evans decided not to make his Depression-era portraits publicly available until 1966, when he published them in the book Many are Called.  The reason?  Well, although Evans never received true acclaim until a critical re-evaluation in the 1960s, I suspect that the manner in which the portraits were taken may have influenced their long-delayed release.  Because, believe it or not, Evans took these pictures with a camera hidden under his raincoat and a shutter release fed down his sleeve.  The (predominantly female) subjects, had their covert surveillance been revealed, would surely have been shocked, angry and perhaps also a little disturbed by the experience.  The faces on show suggest many have problems that help make them such intriguing subjects, but probably also likely to be less than forgiving victims of this kind of prank.

 

 

At least Evans appears to have had some misgivings about his methods.  In one of the earlier rooms, the Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken provides us with this incredible explanation of his work: “I followed this babe around for a while.  She knew I was doing it, and didn’t like it one bit.”  Now I read the quote before I saw the photos, and it sounded a little cheeky, perhaps flirtatious, as if the subject might really be enjoying all the attention but trying to pretend otherwise. 

The photos proved conclusively otherwise.  I can’t track down the images online, so you’re going to have to take my word for it (or, better, go see the show), but they are anything but flirtatious.  Taken in Hong Kong in the 1950s, with all the colonial-era associations that suggests, the woman concerned looks not just as if she “didn’t like it”, but as if she’s about to burst into hot tears of angry frustration.  This is not mere voyeurism, this was a case of prolonged harassment with a distinctly sexual edge.  The pictures made me feel genuinely queasy.

Art has a right to push boundaries, perhaps even a duty to do so, but this was nothing more than bullying.  The oppression of the relatively powerless by the relatively powerful.  Male against female, white against non-white, arrogant ‘artist’ against unsuspecting civilian.  Whatever justification the late Mr. van der Elsken came up with for his behaviour in this instance, he was wrong.

Unlike the photos themselves though, the issue is not black and white.  I would happily condemn van der Elsken, but feel strange reluctance to do the same to Evans.  Rationalising that distinction is difficult – is the overtly non-consensual objectification inherently more despicable, or have I simply been swayed by the emotional response captured on film?  Is the potential anger of Evans’s subjects any less valid for being unrealised?  Or does his greater sensitivity mean we should give him some credit or leeway?  I struggle to navigate the shades of grey here in any systematic way, but I know where my instincts lead me.

We are now used to never-ending debates about the privacy of high-profile public figures.  Street and Studio also provides us with a few celebrity shots – more often than not extravagantly posed – but the glimpses of ordinary lives captured for posterity are far more interesting.  Threaded together they reveal a developing history of the downtrodden being made a spectacle of, literally.  Swiss vagrants, French chimneysweeps, the corpses of miners and murder victims, eyes-down city workers forever with too little time; the destitute, the defiant, the mentally ill, and a single upset woman stalked around Hong Kong.  Even allowing for the occasional staged shot, many here will have had little opportunity to provide what we would now describe as informed consent.  And, of those that did, fewer still would have anticipated that one day they would end up on a wall in the world’s most-visited gallery.

This is not a call for artistic censorship, not even gentle self-censorship.  But due to the flexibility, instant capture and mimetic accuracy of the medium, photography has a responsibility to those that it represents that simply does not rest so heavily upon the painter or the sculptor.  Indeed all those that wield a camera do so with a degree of power, and that power can be an incredible force for good.  But it is not just the paparazzi that can take advantage of their subjects.  There has been much talk recently of a democratisation of photography in the age of flickr, so let us hope that modern photographers are already less aristocratic in their behaviour than some of those represented in Street and Studio.  It certainly should not be impossible to reconcile revealing portraiture and reportage – each of enormous value – with a respect for those featuring that precludes exploitation.

Lewes Wickes Hine: Self-portrait with Newsieboy

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