How The Camera Has Made Us All Voyeurs

Are you a voyeur? Or just a bit nosey? Happier watching from the fringes than in the thick of it? Don't be too hard on yourself: technology may be to blame.

Yes, technology may be to blame as you'll see if you visit Exposed: Voyeurism, surveillance and the camera, an exhibition that opens at Tate Modern in London tomorrow, before moving to the US later in the year.

This is not for those who like their photography to be painterly: you won't find the classical poise and technical perfection of an Ansel Adams landscape or an Edward Weston nude here. It's the candid snapshot, the surveillance camera, the photojournalist and the paparazzo that are the stars of this show.

We're unhappily familiar with the ways that new imaging technology can be used to satisfy old-fashioned desires - just think how the proliferation of cameraphones has brought a surge in "upskirting", or taking surreptitious photos up a woman's skirt. But the first thing that Exposed reveals is that the urge to snap people unawares is almost as old as photography itself.

See more images from Exposed: Voyeurism, surveillance and the camera

The first cameras were cumbersome and slow to use, but in the 1870s a new system, the gelatin dry plate, allowed both cameras and exposure times to shrink. For the first time, a moving camera could capture people in motion, because the more sensitive photographic emulsions needed just hundredths of a second to record an image: shutters were developed to permit this inhuman speed and precision of action. Cameras could be taken off their tripods and onto the street.

How The Camera Has Made Us All Voyeurs

No sooner had hand-held cameras gone into mass production in the late 1880s than early adopters were exploring what they could get away with in public. Exposed shows some of the spy cameras made at the time, with examples of the pictures that amateur photographers captured with such gadgets.

Most are charmingly innocent, although an 1892 shot of a couple lying nestled together on a beach - taken by a camera disguised as a parcel - begins a line of Peeping Tom snaps that runs through the exhibition, becoming ever more explicit thanks to technological advances such as infrared photography and night-vision image enhancement.

The military, meanwhile, had to wait for another technological revolution before they could make the most of the camera's new mobility. Another picture in the exhibition shows the moment in 1911 when George Kelly, piloting a Wright Model B biplane, pointed his camera between his feet to snap a California airfield below, and so gave the world a new way of looking at itself: aerial reconnaissance photography.

Having cameras in the sky is obviously useful for military intelligence and espionage, but it has changed the way we see in more subtle ways too. Simon Baker, curator of photography and international art at the Tate galleries, says that officers initially found the view from above hard to read, because surface features become ambiguous without their familiar ground-level perspective.

However, this strangeness gives the imagination room to move: the CIA's 1962 photographs of ballistic missile installations in Cuba, which put world war three on the starting blocks, resemble the abstract expressionist pictures of the period, with tracks scoured by military vehicles instead of vigorous brushwork.

The artist Sophie Ristelhueber explored this imaginative space when she photographed Kuwait from the air in 1991, six months after the first Gulf war ended. Her large, richly-coloured images show the desert landscape as a deeply wounded body.

Next to them, by contrast, the exhibition shows the crude and cheeky video BIT Plane from the Bureau of Inverse Technology, an artists' group from Melbourne, Australia. In 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, they sent a camera-equipped remote-controlled aircraft flying over the corporate research campuses of Silicon Valley, including Xerox's much-praised Palo Alto Research Center, to outwit commercial secrecy by spying behind the security barriers.

Although this is clearly a kind of surveillance - literally, "looking from above" - it is in spirit an act of "sousveillance", or "looking from below": the use of imaging technology and documentation by ordinary citizens to turn the tables on all-seeing governments and powerful institutions.

Candid street photography and military aerial reconnaissance may seem to have little in common, but they're both examples of how the camera has made us more distant from each other and from the world around us, according to Sandra Phillips of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who is the exhibition's curator.

Looking at a photograph, we may see another person's eyes, and their most private moments, without their being able to see us in turn. The person in the photograph may not even know that it exists, while the photographer - looking through an apparatus rather than directly at the other's face - is in control of this one-way encounter.

Likewise, surveillance technology allows us to view the violence of war, or the potential violence of a political demonstration or a military installation, without putting ourselves in harm's way. Photography, says Phillips, has made us think of distant watching and impersonality as normal.

How The Camera Has Made Us All Voyeurs

There is much else to see in this exhibition: wonderful work by some of the greats of street photography such as Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand and, more recently, Philip-Lorca diCorcia; the world of paparazzi and celebrities; and the documentation of violence. It ends with a simple demonstration of the power of the camera: a video by Thomas Demand of an everyday CCTV camera, projected real-sized on a screen above head level, panning from left to right, right to left, unhurried, relentless and unnerving.

Thomas Demand piece - on high, life-size - joke, at exit. We look up at it as we would look at a real CCTV camera, a scene familiar from SF movies; its slow, relentless sweeping is unnerving - what if it stops, pointing at me?

See more images from Exposed: Voyeurism, surveillance and the camera

Exposed: Voyeurism, surveillance and the camera is at Tate Modern, London, from 28 May to 3 October. It will be at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from 30 October to 17 April 2011 and then at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota

How The Camera Has Made Us All Voyeurs New Scientist reports, explores and interprets the results of human endeavour set in the context of society and culture, providing comprehensive coverage of science and technology news.