How one exhibit is rethinking privacy in a world that’s always watching

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JUDY WOODRUFF: A photography museum is reopening in a sleek new home in New York City, with an exhibition to make you think twice about all the cameras that surround us.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: A stark message stops visitors in their tracks at the threshold of the International Center of Photography’s new home: “By entering this area, you consent to being photographed, filmed and/or otherwise recorded, and surrender the right to the use of such material throughout the universe in perpetuity.”

And that’s what the museum’s first exhibition in its brand-new space in Lower Manhattan explores, the changing role of privacy in a world inundated with surveillance and oversharing.

PAULINE VERMARE, Associate Curator, “Public, Private, Secret”: What is your secret life? How can you keep it secret? I think that’s one of the keys of this exhibition is really that, keeping your privacy, but also making sure that your secret life remains your secret life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pauline Vermare is the associate curator of Public, Private, Secret, a mix of visual media, modern and historical.

There’s this 1946 Yale Joel photograph of a couple through a two-way mirror for a series in “LIFE” magazine, and more contemporary surveillance art by Jill Magid, who captured herself on surveillance cameras, and Merry Alpern, who secretly shot through the bathroom window of a seedy sex club for her “Dirty Windows” series.

The museum itself has come a long way from its 1974 beginnings in a Manhattan mansion under the direction of famed Hungarian photographer Cornell Capa.

Since then, the world of photography has changed.

MARK LUBELL, Executive Director, International Center of Photography: It is the most Democratic format. It is in the hands of all of us. We all are now visually communicating.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark Lubell is the current director of the museum, known as the ICP. He’s overseen an institutional shift, from photojournalism and art photography to an embrace of today’s digital media landscape, where cell phone cameras are ubiquitous.

MARK LUBELL: The big difference is, it used to be a few people taking images that went out to millions. And now it’s millions and millions of people going out to millions and millions of people. I think that’s a seismic shift in the medium, and it’s something that we should be looking at and exploring.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the inaugural exhibition, that means a sometimes jarring juxtaposition of images.

PAULINE VERMARE: We start with historical precedents, and everything is thrown together. It’s not like there’s a hierarchy. Everything is at the same level.

JEFFREY BROWN: A lineup of mid-20th century mug shots taken by unknown photographers sits just beneath portraits of four Muslim women, prisoners in a concentration camp during the Algerian War. They were forced to pose without their veils.

In our own time, people expose themselves.

WOMAN: I’m not gay.

MAN: I am gay.

WOMAN: I am so gay.

JEFFREY BROWN: Offering up private thoughts online, in the form of video diaries available to anyone. Artist Natalie Bookchin sifted through hundreds of those and created an installation titled “Testament.”

NATALIE BOOKCHIN, Artist, “Testament”: I’m choreographing these moments and organizing them to try to make some sense out of them.

I think that there’s a sense, first of all, that this stuff is junk, right, that it’s throwaway, that we shouldn’t watch it, that it’s all just narcissistic, and that it’s kids that are doing silly things with their phone.

And what I’m trying to show in this work, that it’s not just kids, that it’s like — it’s sort of people. You know, people are doing this, old people, young people, men, women.

JEFFREY BROWN: We see and hear some subjects alone, others in a kind of chorus focused on a particular theme. One of her pieces examined people who had lost their jobs in the recession.

NATALIE BOOKCHIN: I wanted in the work to both show the way that sort of people were alone, in some way trying to engage in a political discussion or a social discussion, something that just happened that’s really bad, because the economy is crashing and people are losing their jobs.

But then, at the same time, people are isolated and alone, and they’re speaking to themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: The culture of celebrity is also on display in many different forms.

Patrick McMullan’s Facebook collage from this year’s New York Fashion Week. A series of Andy Warhol Polaroids framed on mirrors, so you’re part of the subject’s 15 minutes of fame too.

And then there’s the placement of this untitled self-portrait by famed art photographer Cindy Sherman.

This is art. She’s shown in every museum in the world.

PAULINE VERMARE: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then you have Kim Kardashian selfies, a book about selfies. Somehow, they belong together, you’re saying, in our world?

PAULINE VERMARE: Well, specifically, this image, in fact, by Cindy Sherman, because she’s pretending to be a star, you know, hunted by the paparazzo, this is what we’re talking about, that tension and the resistance.

And this is — our show — this show is generally about the resistance, or the opposite of resistance, which is what Kim Kardashian does.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which is, take my picture.

PAULINE VERMARE: Just take it, and here it is for you.

JEFFREY BROWN: The museum also wants us to question the very definition of photography and who’s a photographer.

MARK LUBELL: What I do on my phone is not photography. I am creating images.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re not taking photos on our phones? What are we doing?

MARK LUBELL: Well, we’re communicating. We’re communicating. But we’re communicating using the image.

I want to look at where society is today. The thematic of sort of understanding the world that we are today, and looking at it, and examining it, and debating it is central to ICP’s DNA. And I think that’s why the show makes a lot of sense.

JEFFREY BROWN: The exhibition Public, Private, Secret is on view through early January 2017.

From New York, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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