Spying on “The Neighbors”

Last week’s the New Yorker has a blurb about Tribeca photographer Arne Svenson‘s new show, “The Workers,” at Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea. “Some people,” says the magazine, “consider the photographer’s recent pictures of his Manhattan neighbors, caught unawares in their windows, an invasion of privacy.” It was undoubtedly an invasion of privacy: Just think about the sheer amount of looking and watching required, even if no photos—for which Svenson aimed a telephoto lens at the building across the street—had ever seen the light of day. The question, really, was whether the invasion was justifiable because it was in the name of art. Some people thought so; some people didn’t. One family, recognizing itself in the photos, sued Svenson. An appeals court ruled in his favor last month—noting, however, that relevant laws need to be updated.

Why bring up the 2013 controversy now? Because the “Neighbors” photos have been collected in a new book, which you can purchase at the gallery or through Artbook. To my regret, I didn’t make it to the original show, but I went to Chelsea to pick up the book. I think the photos are pretty fantastic. (Wish I’d bought #2.) Also, I was curious about “The Workers.” (“Svenson shifts his focus to workmen seen on construction sites, also through windows,” says the New Yorker. It’s not clear whether they were local, but given that Svenson lives in northwest Tribeca….) The new photos aren’t as powerful as the ones from “The Neighbors,” mainly because they lack the frisson that comes from knowing the subjects were being watched in their homes. Also, this time Svenson was careful to make sure the subjects weren’t identifiable.

In my initial “Neighbors” post, I ran nine of the photos, and this post adds 19 more. The book, however, has 24 beyond those (for a total of 42). The more of them you see, the creepier they get. You start to recognize bodies, decor, relationships. And the flashes of skin start to add up, till it feels increasingly like a fetish. Whether it’s Svenson’s fetish or ours gets harder and harder to determine.

“The Workers” is up through May 30; the “Neighbors” book is $40.