There’s nothing new about voyeurism. There are just more ways than ever to conduct it.
From the time we play innocent little games of “peek-a-boo” with our babies, we’re always peering into other people’s personal places.
Take the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock classic “Rear Window.” James Stewart portrays a photographer, a man whose job it is to capture life in its unguarded moments. While laid up with a broken leg, Stewart idles away his time looking out the window of his apartment across the courtyard at his neighbors.
Stewart doesn’t know any of these people. He doesn’t even know who they are. All he knows is that they’re stupid enough to keep their blinds up. But, hey, if they kept their blinds down, Hitchcock would have no movie.
Since this cross-courtyard scene serves as the equivalent of television for Stewart, he has no problem giving the neighbors nicknames based on his observations of their lifestyles. The middle-aged single woman who wants companionship but can only attract wolves is Miss Lonely Hearts. The blonde pony-tailed girl who exercises in a form-fitting leotard and enjoys parties is Miss Torso.
Even as he displays intense interest in their personal lives, he depersonalizes them because they’re really no more than characters in what today would be a reality television series.
Then there’s the ever-battling married couple to remind him that getting hitched is no prize, the elderly couple who lower their dog in a basket to do his business in the courtyard and the big, tall man whose invalid wife disappears all of a sudden.
His girlfriend is played by Grace Kelly.
You know a guy has an unnatural obsession with voyeurism when not even Grace Kelly can hold his attention for more than a few minutes at a time. But Stewart takes care of that by engaging her in his suspicion that a murder has been committed across the way.
Back in 2012, the National Gallery of Art is showing “I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938-2010.” It shows the work of six photographers who found ways to obtain candid snapshots of people just doing what they do without getting in the way.
For example, Walker Evans hid a camera in his coat and surreptitiously took photos of people sitting across from him in a subway car. And all the other photographers whose works are in the exhibit went about their work with similar sneakiness except Bruce Davison, who asked most of his subjects for permission to use their images.
What makes these photographs artistic and worthy of public display in a world where surveillance cameras, nannycams and images uploaded from smart phones are commonplace?
The people in the National Gallery exhibit pictures seem jaded, tired, bored, or worse, disillusioned. If the photographers are attempting to tell the world that this is the way urban citizens look most of the time, their offering is a very dismal depiction of life.
Somehow I doubt all this “realism” is really real. But if the alternative is Allen Funt’s “Candid Camera” or its latter-day equivalent, “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” I’ll pass.
Analog or digital, voyeurism always reveals more about the voyeur than his subjects.