At the fourth-floor entranceways to "Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870," prominent signs offer a stern warning to visitors with children: "Portions of this exhibition contain violent and sexual content that may not be appropriate for some viewers."
Even adults, though, who take in the photo and video collection — who see the erect and flaccid phalluses hanging out of trousers, nude women being pleasured for money, suicidal people jumping from buildings, newly dead covered in blood and bits of flesh, and strangers and celebrities being followed and cajoled with cameras — may question their tolerance for the imagery on display. That's what the curators want. They may not admit it, but they hope people react with the full breadth of emotions. Guilt. Unease. Delight. Dismay. Approval. An occasional "Ooooh."
"Ooooh" — one that sounded distressed — is what I heard the third time I toured the exhibit, from a man in his late 20s who'd just noticed a photo (titled Hôpital Calmette, Phnom Penh) of a young, naked Cambodian whose legs were amputated. Where his knees should have been were knobs or "pins" — the kind that attach to prosthetics. The photo is doubly jarring because the man has a calm (almost serene) look on his face as he stares at the ceiling from a medical table. He's a land-mine victim. And he was unconscious when the photographer, Bill Burke, took his photo. "I suppose he didn't grant me permission," says Burke, who snapped the image around 1990, when Cambodia was transitioning from wartime to peace. "If he did, it was because his doctor urged him to."
"Photography as an invasive act" is the template of the SFMOMA exhibit, which took 10 years to research and curate. "Exposed" asks whether photographic invasiveness is "inherent to the medium itself," and the answer would seem to be obvious: Yes. The crime scene needs the onlooker. The exhibitionist needs the voyeur. The victim needs the witness to tell his or her story to the world at large. It was as true in the 19th century as it is in the 21st.
In the beginnings of photography, people were rewarded for being invasive, just as they are today. The reward — to use three examples dug out by "Exposed" curators — was showing the horrors of war (Alexander Gardner's photos of Civil War dead, which he sold from his studio), exposing societal wrongs (Jacob August Riis' images of poor New York residents in the 1880s and 1890s, which were published in newspapers), or getting beautiful women to pose without clothing (Louis-Camille d'Olivier's photos from the 1850s, which he peddled to painters as studies for their drawings).
As for amateurs taking photos for private use, "Exposed" addresses this issue like no previous museum exhibition ever has. In the 1870s, technological improvements made cameras more portable and affordable, which prompted a wave of amateur enthusiasts to take to the streets. Everyone they saw was a potential target. Because cameras could be disguised (by the 1920s, lenses were being hidden in heels, canes and other objects — all of which are displayed at SFMOMA), people were photographed without their knowledge. Ethically, the practice was debatable. It still is.
"Exposed" shows that women have, from photography's start, been the object of secretive, risqué, or intrusive images — and that the demand for these images has always existed. In 1875, one called A Peep Through the Key-Hole, of a woman seated in her bedroom, was made for public scrutiny. In 1928, a reporter snuck a camera in his shoe into the execution chamber of convicted murderer Ruth Snyder, capturing her "shaking with electricity" for the front page of the New York Daily News. In the '60s and '70s, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was practically stalked by celebrity photographers who were paid handsomely for their arresting images.
"Exposed" explores the boundaries between voyeurism and violence, between stylized nudity and hardcore moments, letting visitors judge for themselves whether the images on display were appropriate at the time they were made. It's surreal to see — with crowds of other museumgoers — so many depictions of violence, sex, voyeurism, surveillance, and stalking. Two multimedia displays (Nan Goldin's intimate photos of her friends, and a surveillance-like film of partnering) are screened in dark rooms — the sort of shadowy spaces that once characterized seedy porno theaters. On my last tour of "Exposed," I saw a man leave with a woman and say "Phewww," as if he'd survived a long roller-coaster ride. That's what the exhibition feels like: A long ride where you're hurled upside down and sideways — forced to confront your own involvement in the insatiable demand for photos and films that probe at the margins of "way too much."