The Furtive Gaze

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through July 12

When I heard yelling, I looked out my window and saw a woman across the street pleading with a man to keep their relationship a secret from a relative. Then I noticed someone leaning out a window with a camcorder aimed down at the pair. They didn’t notice him, and he didn’t notice me. I wish I’d videotaped him in the act of videotaping them. I wonder if he ever sits in the dark of his apartment and aims his lens through my window.

Then last week on a bus I looked up and noticed a passenger wearing big silver headphones that made him appear focused on his music. He also had a 35-millimeter camera strapped around his right wrist. The bag he carried had plenty of room to hold a camera, but his steady regard of other passengers and less-than-offhand positioning of the camera on his lap and at his side made me think he was taking pictures. I transferred to the el. So did he. There were empty seats, but he stood holding on to a pole, where he could alter his stance and aim at various passengers.

I was carrying a camera too, but it was in my shoulder bag. I also had in there a spare copy of the brochure for “The Furtive Gaze,” an exhibition of work by four photographers and one videographer at the Museum of Contemporary Photography that’s all about voyeurs and strangers. The passenger I took for a photographer got off the el before I could hand him the brochure. Maybe I should have taken his picture.

For “The Furtive Gaze,” MCP associate curator Karen Irvine selected five artists who turn strangers into subjects, usually without their knowledge or consent. Merry Alpern shot women shoppers in department store dressing rooms with a hidden video camera; Sophie Calle stalked a man with her camera in Venice; Melanie Manchot asked strangers on the street for a kiss while wearing a hidden video camera; Chris Verene shot other male photographers in the act of shooting nude female models; and Shizuka Yokomizo wrote letters to strangers asking them to pose for her on a specified night at their windows with all the lights on. As Irvine comments, “The voyeur’s position is also our own, implicating our illicit interest in the scene.” This exhibition is unusually deft at making viewers think about the ethics of viewing. Are photographs more truthful for spectators when the photographer in effect lies to subjects? Also, each artist in “The Furtive Gaze” asks us to believe a back story about how the imagery was created, which might be said to give the photographs greater authenticity. But by revealing the artists’ duplicity, they make us wonder if the stories themselves are true.

Calle’s Suite venitienne (1980) is a dossierlike array of 82 framed photographs, texts, and other items, including two proof sheets and two maps. She claims these document her covert observation of “Henri B.,” a man she met at a party in Paris and followed to Venice the next morning. Her undistinguished black-and-white photographs of him at various locales in the city–sometimes accompanied by a woman, he takes photos at tourist sites–mainly serve to illustrate her own far richer narrative, as she tracks him for nearly two weeks. One entry on February 16 at 4 PM places Calle on a bench at Piazza San Marco: “I watch a little boy with a feathered headdress who’s tirelessly chasing pigeons with a knife. I’d like to see him kill one.” The violence parallels the latent hostility of her own stalking. Calle’s diary recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd,” first published in 1840. Poe’s narrator spots an odd old man in the throngs of a London street: “I resolved to follow the stranger whithersoever he should go.” All night and into the next day he follows him, hoping to divine what keeps him on foot, immersed in crowds. Like Poe, Calle pens a curious tale that reveals more about the teller than the quarry.

In a companion piece–La filature (“The Shadow”), made the following year–Calle displays 29 photos and 13 texts testifying to the fact that “my mother Rachel S.” retained the services of Dulue detective agency at Calle’s request to track the artist’s activities for a day. The detective’s blurry snapshots and terse observations contrast with Calle’s narcissistic musings: “I’ve become a part of the life of X., private detective. I structured his day, Thurs. the 16th of April, in much the same way that he has influenced mine.” Essentially Calle pays for the detective’s voyeurism in this daylong two-person performance. His last entry reads: “At 8:00 p.m. the subject returns to her house. We conclude the surveillance.” As she drifts off to sleep, Calle writes: “Before closing my eyes I think of ‘him.’ I wonder if he liked me. Will he think of me tomorrow?”

Irvine claims that Calle’s contrasting of her diary with the detective’s paid report “tests both the truthfulness of photography itself, and the honesty of our public selves.” But I wonder how deep Irvine’s doubt goes. We can ask how truthful Calle’s photographs are in Suite venitienne and La filature and how honest her reports are. Whether or not Henri B. and private detective X. are real, however, may not matter to Calle’s fantasies of following a strange man and being followed by another. In Venice she entices us to share her frisson by looking over her shoulder, while in Paris she looks over her own shoulder to spot her follower.

Verene’s 12 chromogenic prints from his 1997 series “Camera Club” draw the viewer into a clearly erotic scene. Shot both indoors and outside, they picture men who’ve placed newspaper ads soliciting women to model nude, “pretending to be professional fashion photographers,” as Irvine’s wall text puts it. Verene in turn pretends to be one of them, shooting from behind their backs to capture them in the act of shooting the women, who appear in Verene’s backgrounds. Whether working as a documentary photographer who’s deconstructing the male gaze or merely impersonating one to shoot nudes, Verene can be seen as a sort of backstabber. Humiliating his fellow shooters, he frames their backsides and usually omits their faces. The most telling contrast between the men and the women is an untitled shot showing the elbow of a photographer cocked at the same angle as the arm of his model: while he operates the camera, she places her hand behind her head in a classic cheesecake pose.

Manchot’s For a Moment Between Strangers (2001) documents more transitory intimate incidents. Her uninteresting video records a succession of strangers in various cities responding to the artist’s invitation to kiss her–a tiny hidden video camera fastened to the strap of her shoulder bag records the face, then neck of the kisser as he leans toward her. Alpern also employs a video camera, hidden in her purse, to little effect in her “Shopping” series (1997-’99). Ugly color stills, taken from tape shot in department stores, reveal little other than the unseemly self-loathing of image shoppers. These look like outtakes from a television news investigation but capture petty indecencies like a woman’s chunky bare thigh in a changing room; Alpern’s most arresting shot frames a ruby red shoe as a garish fetish. She proved a more powerful voyeur in an earlier, black-and-white study of people urinating, having sex, and taking drugs in a Wall Street bathroom, shooting them through a dirty window. Here she comes off as an arty shoplifter rather than a sociologist of shopping.

The strongest images in “The Furtive Gaze” have the most intriguing back story yet the least need of one. Yokomizo wrote letters, addressed “Dear Stranger” and signed “Artist,” asking people in London, Berlin, New York, and Tokyo to pose on particular evenings for ten minutes with their lights on and facing their window so she could photograph them. The nine color prints in her “Stranger” series (1998-2000) capture gazes and postures expressing unusually affecting states of ambivalence, wariness, and vulnerability. In one print, a Japanese woman in her stocking feet stands with her hands clasped, awkwardly peering at the viewer with a look that’s both rapt and lost. Yokomizo’s back story–her subjects couldn’t see her outside in the dark but were fully aware of her presence–is the most fascinating in this exhibit. The trust between artist and subject has a strange poignancy that makes the other artists’ tactics seem feints or stunts. And unlike the other projects in “The Furtive Gaze,” Yokomizo’s informs the final look of her photographs.

As a grace note to the exhibit, the museum has installed in a side gallery eight black-and-white prints by Walker Evans borrowed from the Art Institute of Chicago. In the winter of 1938 and the spring of 1941, he hid a camera under his overcoat to shoot portraits of passengers on the Lexington Avenue and Seventh Avenue lines of the New York subway. It’s been done since by other photographers, including Luc Delahaye, who shot a series between 1995 and 1997 in the Paris metro titled “L’autre” (“The Other”). The photographer I saw on the el might have been following Evans’s example. Indeed, Evans’s historic photographs could be said to lend an aura of integrity to what Irvine termed our “illicit interest in the scene.”

The place of explanatory text in this exhibit is complicated by an introduction James Agee wrote to Evans’s book of surreptitious photos, Many Are Called (1966), not quoted in Irvine’s brochure or wall text. After a few perfunctory sentences stating where, when, and how Evans took the pictures, Agee observes: “To anyone who understands what a photograph can contain, not even that information is necessary, and any further words can only vitiate the record itself.” Agee writes nothing more about Evans’s tactics but speculates that each of his subjects “has a wound and nakedness to conceal, and guards and disguises by which he conceals it.” In her essay, Irvine invokes more contemporary thinkers, like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, to justify photographers who trespass on privacy. And other black-and-white imagery in the gallery puts all this stealing looks at strangers in context: a Sony monitor at the front desk is fed video from four security cameras.