The Voyeur Next Door

Svenson161Fine art photographer Arne Svenson—whose loft we peeped back in December—has a provocative new show, “The Neighbors,” opening May 9 at Julie Saul Gallery (535 W. 22nd). “Through the death of a birding friend I obtained his telephoto lens,” Svenson writes on his website. “Having no interest in birds, I turned to the residents of a glass-walled apartment building across the street from my NYC studio. The Neighbors don’t know they are being photographed; I carefully shoot from the shadows of my home into theirs. I am not unlike the birder, quietly waiting for hours, watching for the flutter of a hand or the movement of a curtain as an indication that there is life within.”

The images are gorgeous—the Art in America review cites Hopper, Vermeer, and Hitchcock—but they certainly bring up questions regarding privacy. Svenson, in his website remarks, dismisses the issue: “For my subjects there is no question of privacy; they are performing behind a transparent scrim on a stage of their own creation with the curtain raised high.” The Neighbors—I recognized the building at once, but of course I’m TriBeCrazed—might have a different view of the matter. Either way, I find it fascinating to think about. New Yorkers place imaginary walls where our windows are, telling ourselves at some deep level that we can see out but people can’t see in—or perhaps that even though we know they can see in, we persuade ourselves they don’t watch, and, by extension, that they aren’t using telephoto lenses to take photos of us. On the other hand, I could argue that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t have high expectations when it comes to privacy.

Note that the images are much bigger in real life—all the more reason to see them at the gallery.

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[UPDATE: Photo removed at the request of someone who claims to be the subject.]

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UPDATE: Comments have been turned off due to spam, but you can still comment on the issue here.

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31 Comments

  1. What building is it?

  2. The photographer’s disregard for his neighbors right to & expectation for privacy in their own apartment sounds like a transparent scrim on a stage of his own bullshit, legally speaking. Unless he got their permission post photo. Can you imagine that conversation?

  3. @Katy: I don’t want to be the one to identify the building. (Although it did briefly occur to me to camp out in the lobby to canvass the residents….)

    @Smithers: My understanding is that photographing people through their windows is legal, at least in NYC, and especially when it’s in the name of art. Whether it’s right might depend on how many windows your apartment has and how close neighboring buildings are.

  4. Erik, it would be a favor and a warning if you ID’d the building or at least the general vicinity.

  5. @strollerless: Think of it as a bonus “Where in Tribeca…?”

  6. General vicinity is just Below Canal.

  7. I think this is a horrible intrusion into people’s private lives. It’s noteworthy that none of the photos show his neighbors ‘exhibiting’ themselves at all; he’s captured intimate moments that they expected to be private. His disclaimer that he’s shooting them with ‘the curtain raised high’ isn’t evident in the shots themselves, which show him peeking through their curtains 1/2 the time.

    Most people in the city inure themselves the fear that someone is watching them all the time by hoping that nobody bothers; we can’t close the blinds all day long and stay sane, so we prey our neighbors are decent enough to leave us alone. Not so here. Gross.

  8. Who fricken uses the word “gorgeous”?

  9. @T Bone: I do, all the time: http://tribecacitizen.com/index.php?s=gorgeous&post_type=. But I wouldn’t be caught dead saying “fricken.” So maybe we should all just live and let live?

  10. People do have an expectation of privacy in their homes. And the subjects are ordinary people and not public figures. Some appear to be minors (children).
    Since these images are being used in an exhibition and are being sold for profit, I would hope this photographer has the subjects’ consent.
    Although I admire and appreciate art, I am not sure “gorgeous” is the word I would use here.

  11. I think it’s one thing to be glimpsed, another entirely to be photographed and have those frozen images shown. That woman with a towel on her head sitting on her bed is in no way expecting to be seen. I would not be at all happy with the idea of someone with a telephoto lens looking into my bedroom!

  12. They’re fricken gorgeous.

  13. So this guy admits to watching these people from the “shadows” throughout the day and night with a telephoto lens? It’s not like he snaps a photo and then is gone – he’s got to be sitting watching them for some time. And you think that’s “neighborly?”

  14. Hmm, sounds familiar… lurker waiting in the shadows armed with binoculars or telephoto lens waiting for a glimpse of someone’s personal moment in the privacy of their own home. Where have I read that before? Oh yeah, every news story of a peeping tom ever written!

  15. § 250.45 Unlawful surveillance in the second degree. A person is guilty of unlawful surveillance in the second degree when: 1. For his or her own, or another person’s amusement, entertainment, or profit, or for the purpose of degrading or abusing a person, he or she intentionally uses or installs, or permits the utilization or installation of an imaging device to surreptitiously view, broadcast or record a person dressing or undressing or the sexual or other intimate parts of such person at a place and time when such person has a reason- able expectation of privacy, without such person’s knowledge or consent. 2. For his or her own, or another person’s sexual arousal or sexual gratification, he or she intentionally uses or installs, or permits the utilization or installation of an imaging device to surreptitiously view, broadcast or record a person dressing or undressing or the sexual or other intimate parts of such person at a place and time when such person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, without such person’s knowledge or consent. 3. (a) For no legitimate purpose, he or she intentionally uses or installs, or permits the utilization or installation of an imaging device to surreptitiously view, broadcast or record a person in a bedroom, changing room, fitting room, restroom, toilet, bathroom, wash- room, shower or any room assigned to guests or patrons in a motel, hotel or inn, without such person’s knowledge or consent. (b) For the purposes of this subdivision, when a person uses or installs, or permits the utilization or installation of an imaging device in a bedroom, changing room, fitting room, restroom, toilet, bathroom, washroom, shower or any room assigned to guests or patrons in a hotel, motel or inn, there is a rebuttable presumption that such person did so for no legitimate purpose. 4. Without the knowledge or consent of a person, he or she inten- tionally uses or installs, or permits the utilization or installation of an imaging device to surreptitiously view, broadcast or record, under the clothing being worn by such person, the sexual or other intimate parts of such person. Unlawful surveillance in the second degree is a class E felony. 

  16. Laying in wait with a telephoto lens should destroy any legal defense. This is not street photography, in which behavior is expected to be public. This is not merely glimpsing something happening through an open window. And identities are not even protected in all of these images.

    Svenson is using technology to see more than the naked eye can see, laying in wait for particular activity, then distributing and selling those images. Whatever a court might rule on the letter of the law, a considerate judge would have to agree that the spirit of the law does not protect the artist.

  17. As an artist myself, I can appreciate these images and the private moments that they capture, as well as the commentary on the ‘glass house’. However, it feels completely creepy to me to do this to one’s neighbors (or do it at all) and also is properly illegal to use someone’s image for profit or gain (in this case both financial and publicity). Which, I’m confident the artist will soon find out as I know several people in these photographs and many of them are lawyers, all of them are well-connected and I suspect few of them will appreciate this. This, is surely something the photographer considered though, when shooting into the windows of a posh TiBeCa glass-walled building. I imagine it’s all part of the thrill.

  18. Ugh. I have a problem with these on 2 fronts:

    1 – creepy, rude, disrespectful of privacy.
    2 – nowhere near interesting enough to overcome problems listed in #1

  19. What are curtains/drapes and blinds for ? I live in Brighton England and we are in very close proximity to all our neighbours as well as people walking along the street so we have frosted the bottom half of our windows. . . Don’t want to live in a goldfish bowl do we . .

  20. Let me get this straight:
    People are living in glass-walled buildings, don’t put up curtains, and then gripe that they can be seen and photographed? Expectation of privacy? You gotta be kidding me! Anyone who chooses to live that way – whether in a ground floor apartment or on an upper floor – has chosen to be part of the public landscape of the city.
    I don’t know this photographer but his work is gorgeous.

  21. Joan, you must not live in Tribeca where many of us have oversize (yes, glass) windows. We don’t have to keep our curtains or shutters closed 24/7 to avoid been photographed and having our images exhibited in galleries and sold for profit. We do have an expectation of privacy. That is a legal term. I’m not kidding you. Do a bit of research.

  22. @StroTriHot – You’re so off base here. The photographer is the victim in this case. If these provocatively dressed “neighbors” would just keep their curtains or shades drawn, he wouldn’t be required to wait in the shadows to photograph their “private” moments with his zoom-zoom lens and then exhibit them publicly. They asked for it!

    @Joan – you should see the photos I’ve taken of you. They’re simply gorgeous. Rawrrr! ;)

  23. TRIBECA RESIDENTS FURIOUS OVER BEING SECRETLY PHOTOGRAPHED FOR NEW CHELSEA ART EXHIBIT

    http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/manhattan/rear_window_EWnMHY4AWfgkA9lL5h5nVL

  24. I don’t know. I find the images quite beautiful, and the idea that if you’re standing in front of an open window on a major city street you’re anonymous is ridiculous. Nevertheless, I think that nominal anonymity was maintained by the artist. I’m quite sure that I would never recognize any of these individuals on the street if I was standing face to face with them. A lot of hysterical fuss, bolstered by titillating coverage, imo.

  25. @David: It’s a fascinating situation. I, too, find the photos stunning. And yet no one—or few of us, I suppose—likes to feel violated without his or her consent, even in the name of art. The subjects may not be recognizable to others, but they surely can identify themselves (hence the feelings of violation).

    I keep wondering if there was an anti-gentrification element: Was a longtime Tribeca artist needling the folks well-off enough to afford a glossy new building? We’d have to psychoanalyze Svenson to know….

  26. The New York Post writes that the shots don’t show full faces, yet the dog’s face is fully visible above.

    The NY Post (really credible source) is mistaken, referring to some unnamed privacy experts. The issue isn’t regarding whether faces are visible or not.
    There was a recent case in NY – over the use of street photography (also totally different than this case) – in which the artist won, but primarily due to thestatute of limitations.

  27. I don’t really feel like these photos cross the line too much. The subjects are more or less all standing or sitting rather innocently… now if the artist snapped any photos of his neighbors in the nude or doing anything explicit or incriminating, then -that- would be kind of rude and creepy (especially since these photos are made public). Doesn’t seem like any of them are like that though (at least from the ones shown on here), so overall, not really a big deal in my book…
    If I had happened to see some photo of myself standing in my window in some gallery some day, yeah I would probably feel kind of weird about it at first; but on the other hand, I’d also just start closing my curtains more..

  28. I am not a fan of the work, just not my cup of tea. More of an Ansel Adams kinda guy.
    to the points discussed. If no one was dressing or undressing then the whole penal law post has no merit here. The law itself describes why the law was not broken.

    Blinds were made for just this reason.

    Photos sold as art or fine art do not require a release. A release is needed if the photographer wanted to sell the photo for use in advertising.

    Like I said. I wouldnt be interested in this work, wont go see it, etc,… But lets try and stick to what happened here, and what the law actually is, not what it is on TV

  29. People who live in glass houses should put up drapes if they don’t want to be photographed.

  30. “Neighbor Porn” by Arse Svenson