A Photo Teacher |

Spectacle of the Gaze

Posted in PHOT 167 by Paul Turounet on September 18, 2008


Scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 1954


I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long focus lens?

L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (played by James Stewart) asking his girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (played by Grace Kelly) about the ethics of voyeurism and surveillance from Rear Window, 1954.


The use of the photographic lens as a means of surveillance and spectacle to gaze at others has long been practiced within the contexts of paparazzi photography, street photography, photojournalism and documentary photographic practice. The photographs made within these contexts function as a cultural commodity, particularly in advertising and print journalism, including newspapers, magazines and tabloids. Whether still or moving, these images are essential in our societal desire to peer into the lives of others and revel in the spectacle of their circumstances.



© Walker Evans, from Many Are Called (left) and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Head No. 13, 2000, from Heads (right)


The current cultural climate is making it even more difficult for photographers to work in the public domain as evidenced by the recent lawsuit by Erno Nussenzweig against Philip-Lorca diCorcia and his gallery, Pace/McGill, for using his image in an exhibition and the subsequent publication, Heads, without his permission and financial compensation. The New York State Supreme Court later dismissed the case, citing there was no expectation of privacy and that the work had been created for artistic purposes.


Cameras define reality in two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers).

Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates. Starting with their use by the Paris police in the murderous roundup of Communards in June 1871, photographs became a useful tool of modern states in the surveillance and control of their increasingly mobile populations. In another version of its utility, the camera record justifies. A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.

from On Photography by Susan Sontag



© Louis Hock, Nightscope #11, from the Nightscope Series, 2001 – 2003


Photographers who have utilized the visual strategy of surveillance photography include Walker Evans (Many Are Called), Philip-Lorca diCorcia (Heads), Merry Alpern (Dirty Windows), Kohei Yoshiyuki (The Park), Louis Hock (Nightscope Series), Michael Wolf (Transparent City) and Beat Streuli.  

For his Surveillance Series and Texas DOT Traffic Series paintings, William Betts utilizes closed-circuit video images. Artist Jill Magid utilizes CCTV footage from the Liverpool Police, which has the largest video surveillance system in England, to track her activities over 31 days for her Evidence Locker project.

The strategies and techniques employed include:

  • Use of a long telephoto lens
  • Hidden cameras and/or lens
  • Spy cameras, including lens-based devices such as watches, eyeglasses, and clothing buttons
  • Image aesthetics, including blur, soft-focus, increased film grain and pixelation
  • Date and/or time identification
  • Fixed location like CCTV cameras that record a specific scene
  • Undercover/hidden location
  • Night vision and thermal imaging



© Kohei Yoshiyuki, from the series, The Park

View Layers of Voyeurism multimedia slide presentation narrated by Philip Gefter from the New York Times article, Sex in the Park, and Its Sneaky Spectators.



© William Betts, Lobby Entrance, 2006 and Stalker Suspect, 2007 (both acrylic on canvas) from Surveillance Series



Visually investigate the conceptual idea of voyeurism and surveillance and its relationship to the photographic image as a source of spectacle, evidence and “truth.” Utilizing one or a combination of the visual strategies discussed, shoot images that reveal a sense of seemingly private experience that takes place within the public context.

Thinking about your conceptual concerns and what to photograph, I would propose you gravitate towards what your interests and curiosities are. How would you approach those concerns photographically to reveal what they would look like as a series of photographs? In addition to their visual engagement, what do you want the photographs to reveal, suggest or evoke, intellectually and/or emotionally, in relationship to these ideas and perceptions? Consider how your use of the camera, photographic aesthetics and materials as well as your technical execution will be utilized in making photographs that begin to suggest and inform these curiosities and ideas.

In considering your photographic vision and use of camera aesthetics, give particular attention to your use of the photographic frame, vantage point, moments of exposure and the role and use of light to reveal your interpretation of the thing itself and details. Consider various visual strategies and points of view, including the compositional possibilities with a single frame, multiple-image sequences, the juxtaposition of images (diptychs and triptychs) and multiple-image series (typology – conceptually and/or visually).

It is essential that your idea reflect a sense of considered thought, active visual exploration and is articulated with a cohesive vision and voice. I would encourage you to follow-up with me regarding conceptual development as suggested by your photographic efforts by meeting with me to discuss your work (contacts and prints) in an effort to further encourage your photographic process.



For the critique (see Calendar for Due Date) and evaluation, please complete the following:

Digital Review of all Digital Photographs/Files shot for Assignment

Minimum of 4 – finished photographic prints made in the Grossmont College Analog | Digital Photography Labs.

If you have an alternative presentation idea | concept in mind, such as the use of internet, mapping or video, follow-up with me.

Turn-in all critique materials in a manila envelope for evaluation and feedback.


Student Work

Guilherme Marques, 2008


© Rhys Mavis, 2008


© Dewey Keithly, 2008

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