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Public, Private, Secret. On Photography and the Configuration of Self. 

By Charlotte Cotton with Marina Chao and Pauline Vermare


Public, Private, Secret. On Photography and the Configuration of Self, is an outgrowth of an exhibition held in 2016 for the opening of a new space in New York’s Bowery for the International Center of Photography. It might be characterized as a post-exhibition catalogue as it was released after the exhibition closed. In her introduction, Cotton prefers the term “textual reader.”

A better term might be “a disappointment.” There are several unfortunate aspects of the book. Unlike an exhibition catalogue or what one would expect from virtually any book tied to a photography display, the book is woefully short of actual photographs.

Instead, it opts for words over pictures. This was a mistake.

Cotton’s introduction is unnecessarily dense and sets the tone for much of the book. A disappointment for anyone familiar with Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art. Divided into three main sections, Public, Private, Secret begins with a series of essays, which is the least informative section. More interesting are the 14 artist interviews. The book concludes with a “Reflections” section which is more enlightening than the introductory essays, but generally fall short of the artist interviews.

The main theme of the exhibition was to explore personal privacy and what Cotton refers to as surveillance culture. The book seeks to explore various aspects of privacy, drawing a wide net that covers many topics that are often only remotely related to the topic at hand and even less related to one another.

In defense of the book, it also suffers from the fact that events of the past four years have overtaken the ideas that were explored in the exhibition and essays.

Writing from the vantage point of early 2021, some of the essays and political points made back in 2016 seem outdated.

Marisa Olson, an artist and writer, kicks off the series of essays with a look at Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian and quickly makes her point of view known with the observation that “Trump arguably stole the U.S. Presidential election by not only bucking the odds…but also by carrying out essentially civilian psy-ops through contracts with big data firms…”

From the perspective of 2021 and Trump’s months-long campaign to reverse his election result, the use of big data to target voters and craft messages back in 2016 seems benign and in fact, is standard practice among all political campaigns. Indeed, Barrack Obama’s campaign is generally credited with launching the era of sophisticated micro-targeting.  It was hyperbolic in 2016 to characterize this data-driven strategy as “stealing” the election and, considering Trump’s actual efforts to steal the 2020 election, the charge seems ludicrous today.   

Perhaps a bigger problem is that the societal and technological changes of the past four years make the critiques of the “surveillance culture” seem simplistic. They lack nuance that we can all appreciate from the perspective of 2021. The book makes no serious effort to explore the world’s most notorious and sophisticated surveillance culture, China, but focuses exclusively on western culture.

While it cannot be faulted for failing to foresee the impact of a worldwide pandemic, we can today recognize that government surveillance in the form of contact tracing and other measures in the service of slowing the spread of a deadly disease can have benefits for the society at large at a time when the very survival of society is at stake.

Additionally, when social media has become a key tool in radicalizing and motivating civil unrest, powerful arguments can be made for placing limits on privacy.

Perhaps most importantly though, the book makes no serious effort to wrestle with the longstanding fraught relationship between photography and the exploitation of personal privacy. No critique, for example, of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s surreptitious photographs of unsuspecting passers-by or even any acknowledgment of the unavoidable exploitative nature of street photography generally. No discussion of photography’s long history of exploiting poverty, minorities, and social outcasts in the pursuit of art.

The subject of privacy and the configuration of self deserves exploration, but this book does not deliver in a serious way.  A far better, more rewarding and more insightful discussion can be found in Nathan Jurgenson’s The Social Photo.

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