The first section of the exhibition considers ways in which photography can reveal the world unawares and show people caught with their guard down. This idea begins with the technologies that have allowed images to be made surreptitiously, from nineteenth-century cameras hidden in walking sticks, shoes or inside suit-jackets, to twentieth-century devices such as the lateral view-finder which allows the photographer to apparently face one direction while taking a picture in another.

Harry Callahan Atlanta 1984

Harry Callahan
Atlanta 1984
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © Estate of Harry Callahan

Room 1

This room presents two sets of photographs from opposite ends of the twentieth century, both of which rely on specific equipment and strategies. Walker Evans’s Subway Passengers were made on New York City underground trains in the 1930s with small hidden cameras, allowing Evans to record the natural, un-posed faces of the city’s inhabitants. Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads, by contrast, were taken on the streets of New York in 2000, also without their subjects’ knowledge or permission, but this time through an elaborate series of hidden cameras and automatic flashes that were triggered as people walked past. One of his unwitting targets took legal action against diCorcia, which resulted in a landmark ruling that the artist’s right to self-expression took precedence over the subject’s right to their own image.

Room 2

The notion of the Unseen Photographer also extends to the practices of photographers that enable them to ‘capture’ images stealthily or by surprise. Working in the slums of New York at the end of the nineteenth century, Jacob Riis’s pictures of tenement dwellers include those sleeping or so tired and inebriated they are barely aware of him entering their rooms and setting off his bright flash bulb. Paul Strand used a false lens to photograph poor immigrants while seeming to point his camera the other way. Hired by the National Child Labor Committee, Lewis Hine’s revelatory photographs of children working in mines and factories appear to show the subjects’ awareness of the photographer, but were taken without the permission of the factory owners.

Room 3

This room presents work by some of the twentieth century’s most important photographers. In each case, they exploit the camera’s ability to create images without the knowledge of some, or all, of their subjects. Ben Shahn used a lateral viewfinder to make candid street photographs. Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed people from above to great visual effect, while Lee Friedlander and Harry Callahan seem to sneak up on their subjects from behind. Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank’s lightning-fast snapshots of street life suggest photography working faster than the eye to capture a split-second slice of real life. Winogrand liked to use an extra wide lens, so that people on the edges of his photographs wouldn’t have realised they were in the frame. Many of these photographers produced series of works on the same theme or in the same location, epitomised by Harry Callahan’s sequence of images Women Lost in Thought, made in 1950.

Men's shoes with camera hidden in heel

Men's shoes with camera hidden in heel
© National Museum of American History Photographic History, gift of The New York News