As proclaimed by its title, "Exposed," which was organized by SFMOMA and the Tate Modern in London, where it originally premiered, attempts to track — across various eras, technologies, and milieu — what the introductory wall text calls the "voyeuristic impulse" in modern and contemporary photography: "an eagerness to see a subject commonly considered taboo."
With such an open-ended criteria, the curators have essentially given themselves carte blanche to include everything from early 20th-century "detective cameras," Walker Evans' portraits of unknowing New York City subway passengers, Ron Galella's paparazzi snaps of Jackie O., Nick Ut's iconic image of a crying Kim Phuc in Vietnam (as well as his 2007 picture of a crying Paris Hilton), Robert Mapplethorpe's BDSM pictures, surreptitious documentation of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, and Trevor Paglen's near-abstract renderings of distant military sites.
The 200 or so pieces are arranged in thematically-grouped galleries ("Celebrity and the Public Gaze," "Witnessing Violence") that wind through half of the museum's fifth floor. By the time you've made it through the lengthy, final "Surveillance" section of the show, "Exposed" feels more like a photography catalog that become the genesis for an exhibit, and not the other way around.
Such tidy categorization has the negative effect of creating closed systems rather than allowing different pieces to speak to each other. For example, two harrowing, anonymously-attributed lynching photos belong next to one of the most moving selections in "Exposed," Oliver Lutz's Lynching of Leo Frank, which hangs in another gallery. At the same time, the very proximity of death images and paparazzi shots cheapens both.
When presenting highly-charged, difficult images, many of which document humankind at its most brutal and unsavory, the context they are displayed in becomes as crucial as the images themselves. "Exposed," which feels like the result of several unseemly Google image searches rather than a decade of curatorial sweat, disappoints in this regard.
Atrocity. Murder. Fame. Kinky sex. It's all here! The question no one seemed to ask is: does it need to be? "Exposed" is simply too much. *
AFGHANISTAN IN 4 FRAMES
Through May 13, free
1 Dr Carlton B. Goodlett Place (ground floor), SF
EXPOSED: VOYEURISM, SURVEILLANCE, AND THE CAMERA SINCE 1870
Through April 17; free–<\d>$18
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., SF