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Arne Svenson and the Art Between Privacy and Exposure

Curators’ Corner

Arne Svenson and the Art Between Privacy and Exposure

It’s no secret that privacy is hard to come by in New York City, even in the comfort of your own home. In most NYC neighborhoods, buildings are practically within arm’s reach and neighbors are clearly visible to each other.

City-dwellers generally accept being on display, but artist and photographer Arne Svenson is catching some heat for his photo collection called The Neighbors. Residents of the Zinc Building in Tribeca had no idea they were being watched, much less photographed by Svenson from his apartment across the street. The photos are now being featured in an exhibit at the Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea and are selling for up to $7,500 dollars each, the New York Post reported.

Svenson photographed his neighbors sleeping, lounging, cleaning and carrying their kids to bed. Here are a few examples:

Courtesy of Arne Svenson

Courtesy of Arne Svenson

Courtesy of Arne Svenson

Some of the subjects are reportedly considering legal action while one couple has already filed a lawsuit, but the case isn’t as clear as you may think, especially because their faces weren’t shown in the photos.

Questions of the presumption of privacy are being asked against questions of artistic merit. Svenson describes the work as, “social documentation” on his website. Indeed, upon looking at the images there is quaintness to the mundane nature of much of the work. The unremarkable subject matter is a sharp contrast to what seems like the remarkably brazen act of actually documenting it. In many ways the traditional relationship between artist and subject is being broken. Both in the obvious sense that the subjects are unaware of their role as subject, but also in the trust shared between artist and subject.

Considering the legal actions many of the subjects are either taking or contemplating taking, it is safe to say that in lieu of trust being built, a severe violation was made by the artist. This violation calls into question, to some degree, what the nature of privacy in the modern age is. There have surely been moments in history where a neighbor caught a brief glimpse at the very private rituals of another’s home, but only recently has it become not only so easy to document it, but also prevalent in society. Reasonable expectations of privacy are constantly in flux.

In some ways, because the nature of what Svenson has done is actually nothing new (peering into the windows of an unsuspecting neighbor) it is reasonable to question what new moral or ethical line has actually been crossed. The fact that a neighbor (or anyone passing by for that matter) saw another person engaged in what was thought to be a private moment isn’t something commonly considered grounds for legal action. What makes the same act’s documentation morally or ethically vacuous enough for such action? Is failing to take the proper steps to seal one’s private world off from the peering eye of the public an implicit invitation for the external world to indulge in a moment of voyeurism?

Perhaps Svenson is attempting to ask a number of questions about not only the nature of privacy but also the authority from which it is derived. In a sense, the owner of the curtain sets the perimeters around which their sense of privacy is derived.

“For my subjects, there is no question of privacy,” Svenson says. “They are performing behind a transparent scrim on a stage of their own creation with the curtain raised high. The neighbors don’t know they are being photographed; I carefully shoot from the shadows of my home into theirs.”

What do you think? What merit does Svenson’s artistic license hold? Did The Neighbors unwittingly forfeit their privacy by drawing their curtains while Svenson took care not to be seen? What are the reasonable limitations for either party, either in their expectation of privacy or their exploitation of a drawn curtain?