Peeping Tom art exhibit has unwitting subjects up in arms

Peeping Tom art exhibit has unwitting subjects up in arms

From The Neighbors
From “The Neighbors”

There are no ifs or ands to the photos taken by New York City artist Arne Svenson but there’s at least one but — butt, more properly — and its owner is displeased at being so immortalized.

The Associated Press reports that Svenson snapped the images of residents of a glass-walled luxury apartment building across the street from his own through (one hopes) a rear window. The artist was careful to obscure the subjects’ faces, or avoid showing them altogether.

The subjects are nevertheless outraged that their images, photographed without their knowledge or consent are now on display — and for sale — in a Manhattan gallery.

One photo shows a barefooted woman on her hands in knees, her posterior thrust in the air. Another is of a couple in bathrobes, their feet touching beneath a table, while a third depicts a man in jeans and a T-shirt, lying on his side, napping. There is no nudity.

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Svenson’s show, titled “The Neighbors,” opened last Saturday at the Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea, where about a dozen large prints are on sale for as much as $7,500. The exhibit is drawing attention, but not because of the quality of the work so much as for the manner in which it was made.

Michelle Sylvester, a resident of the building from which Svenson culled his collection photos, said, “I don’t feel it’s a violation in a legal sense, but in a New York, personal sense there was a line crossed.”

People who live in glass houses: Svenson’s studio is in the building in the foreground. The building in the background is his photographic “petri dish.”
People who live in glass houses: Svenson’s studio is in the building in the foreground. The building in the background is his artistic “petri dish.”

But Svenson defends his work. “I think there’s an understanding that when you live here with glass windows, there will be straying eyes but it feels different with someone who has a camera,” adding:

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 don’t know they are being photographed; I carefully shoot from the shadows of my home into theirs.

But does the law agree with his assessment? Responding to an email circulating among the building’s owners and renters this week, suggesting that legal action might be afoot, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel said the issue comes down to context:

The question for the person who’s suing is, if you’re not identifiable, then where’s the loss of privacy? These issues are a sign of the times. How do you balance the right of privacy vis-à-vis the right of artistic expression?

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Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy has written for The Blaze, HotAir, NewsBusters, Weasel Zippers, Conservative Firing Line, RedCounty, and New York’s Daily News. He has one published novel, Hot Rain, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), and has been a guest on Radio Vice Online with Jim Vicevich, The Alana Burke Show, Smart Life with Dr. Gina, and The George Espenlaub Show.

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