Last Sunday, the sound of rain pelting the window pane woke me up. Plans to lead a walk along the Golden Gate bridge were definitely off. One of my favorite past times and excuses to love rainy weather is the opportunity to ensconce myself in a museum. Two photography exhibits proved to entice me to visit the MOMA. New friends, Elina and Carolyn accompanied.
Henri Cartier-Bresson first got my attention in graduate school, his photo En Brie hung over my roommate Yoo Mee’s bed. I called her a woman-child, she called me “Chick”. Her mother sometimes called in the middle of the night, not speaking any English and sounding frantic to speak to her daughter. I learned a few select words in Korean to help our phone communication along. The evening I said chamkamanyo in response to the repetitive litany of her daughter’s name, it was met with a brief pause and then a giggle. When Yoo Mee graduated, she left me a bit of herself in the form of Henri C-B.
I arrived at the MOMA expectant and anticipating. Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed Colette and other French literary dignitaries. A room away, a historical photo of Nehru and Lord Mountbatten was framed to the left of a close-up of Gandhi’s funeral pyre. His way with the 35 mm camera set the stage for modern photojournalism and point-and-shoot photography. He called his style “images a la sauvette” which translates to being “caught red-handed.” This also fit the end of the photography exhibit upstairs: “Exposed: voyeurism, surveillance and the camera since 1870.”
The photos in this exhibit really created topics of conversation and brought the museum visitor into the same voyeur stance as the photographer. There is something compelling about watching other people. Babies can sit in front of a television watching video of other baby faces roll by for hours. People watching is infinitely fun, but when does the fun act cross a line of inappropriate. I think we’d all agree that watching people stroll by a window of a coffee house is innocuous. Watching the lit window of a person in a dark evening, not so much. What does privacy look like in today’s world and what should it look like? Do you take the photo if you’re about to catch a murder in progress or try to stop it? A whole room devoted to catching murder and suffering in action turned my stomach and included images of suicides in progress, prisoners of war being put to death. Thankfully only the one room existed and one photographer communicated he took the photo of a POW being killed so the killer could never be lost in obscurity.
One particular project of note involved photographer Nicholas Nixon shooting his wife and her three sisters over the course of 24 years. Along one wall hung the 24 pictures with the sisters standing in the same order, but with time and age marking them. Sometimes the photo showed arms wrapped around each other, other times stoic and not touching. This left an indelible impression because of the thoughtfulness and length of time necessary to finish it. I wondered what this might look like in my own life. If translated into poetry?
Another artist took a job as a housekeeper at a small pensione in Venezia for the express purpose of snooping through the guests’ staying in the rooms she cleaned. She described her findings with alacrity. This “research” took place over the course of several days. She read one man’s journal and his movements to Venice from France. She watched the orange on his desk become orange peels in his wastebasket a few days later. She photographed his room and along with her writings, it was on display at this museum. Were her actions sanctioned in the name of art? It definitely gave me pause.
Another photographer, Emily Jacir, positioned herself at a square overseas for a series called In Linz and using time lapse photography, placed herself in different spots of the square each day, describing in her cutline, her location in the pre-timed photo. This prescribed breach of privacy may have shown her physical location but did not break into her interior landscape.
Surveillance, voyeurism sees to an extent what it is shown, what it wants to see. Often, I wonder if we are seeing, rather than just zooming through our lives. Do we see what others might be seeing in our direction? One of the concepts I took away from both exhibits and notably, a favorite reason for loving photography is the act of looking, which is exactly the name of the overall exhibit at the MOMA. If we look around us, what might we see that’s innately there if looked for?