Paris Hilton in tears on the way to jail, Jackie Kennedy Onassis sprinting from a determined paparazzo, the painter Edgar Degas exiting a pissoir.
These are among the sights on view in an intriguing, though patchy, exhibition -- “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera” -- at Tate Modern in London.
The show makes a powerful point, yet makes it so thoroughly as to become tedious. Photography displays all manner of things we perhaps have no right to see: other people’s privacy, suffering and death. It’s summed up by a shot of Greta Garbo holding up a hand to shield herself from a lens.
Intruding into private grief -- or joy, or just ordinary unobserved existence -- is one of the things that photographic media can do and others cannot, or not nearly so well (a camera can snap faster than the speediest draftsman). Indeed, the better photographs are often the more intrusive.
Think how many of the renowned masterpieces of photography depend on snapping strangers, generally without their permission and possibly against their will. Great street-life observers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Weegee (real name, Arthur H. Fellig), both featured in the show, took many of their masterpieces like that.
Take, for example, a shot by Weegee of lovers canoodling at a 1940s cinema. It’s vivid social reportage, beautifully observed and composed, yet turns the viewer into a Peeping Tom. The same is true of Brassai’s brilliant glimpses into a Parisian brothel of the 1930s.
The earliest photography was as studio-bound and almost as slow as painting. The hand-held, snapshot camera of the late 19th century made it easy to take pictures of all manner of fleeting sights, particularly those we aren’t supposed to see, such as the intimate life of the famous.
The 21st-century obsession with the cult of celebrity is arguably the product of photography. Half the fascination of a modern celeb -- as opposed to an old-fashioned one such as Louis XIV -- is that they can be caught off guard, in vulnerable moments, as Jackie, Garbo and poor Paris all were in the photos cited above. The capturing of such images quickly shades into persecution and outright pursuit.
The lens loves sights it would be difficult to stare at in real life without risking embarrassment, danger or even prosecution. It intrudes into the misery of strangers as readily as into their intimacy. Since the 19th century, down-and-outs have been as much a staple of documentary photography as winged cherubs are of Baroque tombs. Ben Shahn’s tramp asleep on a Bowery pavement in 1933 could, with a few changes of fashion detail, have been taken yesterday.
In fact, the camera is a handy tool for snooping on just about anybody. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Walker Evans surreptitiously took portraits of passengers on the subway. Describing himself as a “penitent spy,” he admitted using a concealed camera. The show includes early specimens of those, hidden away in such unlikely spots as the heel of a shoe.
Those images by Evans are wonderfully revealing, just because the subjects didn’t know they were being observed. On the other hand, he was right to feel guilty about taking them. How would you feel if you found your own face, caught in some private moment, on the wall of Tate Modern? To avoid that fate, many of us would run like Jackie.
“Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera” is at Tate Modern, London, through Oct. 3. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)