Were These Photographs Voyeurism, or Art?

When Arne Svenson’s photographic series “The Neighbors” was first exhibited in New York in 2013, the uproar overwhelmed the pictures. Press commentators got so riled up over how Svenson had used a telephoto lens to peer at the unaware people living across the street from his TriBeCa building — and published the images without their consent — that it was hard to judge how the photographs measured up artistically.

Svenson, a successful artist, had stumbled into the project after inheriting a large telephoto lens from a deceased friend who had used it to photograph birds. Planning to sell it, he thought it should be tested first. The lens was so heavy that he had to screw it into his tripod, and when he aimed at a wall in his apartment, the distance was too short for the focal length.

A building had recently risen opposite his, in what had been a vacant lot. He turned the lens that way and saw a woman through a window. “I focused on her, and when I saw the clarity, I started going,” he said. Quickly obsessed, he might have taken 200 shots waiting for the light to shift. No one ever noticed, except for a Boston terrier that eyed him curiously. Nor did he ever consider how his subjects might respond if they knew.

“A lot of artists, and I think it’s a gift, are completely oblivious to the consequences of their actions,” Svenson, now 70, recalled during a recent interview. “If I ever thought of what their reactions would be, I somehow thought they would be pleased.”

They were not, especially when he exhibited the photos at the Julie Saul Gallery in Manhattan.

A decade has passed. In 2016, a bitter court case charging him with invasion of privacy brought by some of the aggrieved subjects was decided in Svenson’s favor. The appellate judge found that while New York State law prohibits the unauthorized use of a person’s likeness for advertising or commerce, an exception is made for art. At least legally, Svenson’s photographs qualified as art.

But are they good art? An exhibition of 12 of these pictures at the James Danziger Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., from March 4 to April 22, allows us, with the distance of time and geography, to make a detached judgment. In their lighting and formal composition, the pictures are beautiful, and in their unabashed exercise of the voyeuristic gaze, discomfiting and riveting.

Svenson still lives in the TriBeCa apartment where he made the photographs. A self-taught art photographer, he usually works in sequences and before the 2013 exhibition had solo shows at the Grey Art Gallery in New York and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. “Ever since I picked up a camera, I never could satisfy what questions I have with a single image,” he recalled in January. “Everything for me is like a facet in stone, and every way you turn, it looks different.”

He said that part of what drew him into the project was noticing how metal mullions divided the windows into rectangular sections. “They have this Mondrian look about them, and you can isolate different activities within a quadrant,” he said. “What you don’t see is so much more powerful than what you do see. My job is to give you the opening sentence, and then you have to work. It’s why cropping is so important. Crop out the thing that completes the story. If you have a dog wagging its tail, crop out the dog or the tail. Don’t have them both.”

Early on, he decided that he would focus on the dirt and streaks on the windows, not on the people behind the glass. As a result, the subjects are usually a bit indistinct, which lends a painterly quality to them. A woman viewed from behind, with upswept hair and an elegant, old-fashioned black dress or slip, is rising from (or perhaps descending into) a blue Windsor chair. Because the lens is focused on the surface of the window, the image, with its alluringly dappled surface that mimics texture, could be a pastel drawing on woven paper. Indeed, because of its subject matter, it evokes comparisons with pastels of women seemingly captured unawares in the bath by Degas, that consummate practitioner of the male gaze, who said he wanted his pictures to appear as if they were viewed “through the keyhole.”

Although Svenson denies any erotic component to his photographs, the frisson of scopophilia unmistakably animates them. It is evident in a picture of a young man sleeping on a couch, with a few inches of bare skin exposed between his T-shirt and the seat of his bluejeans. His vulnerability to the penetration of the camera — and our eyes — is a powerful component of the image. And the prominence of the mullions not only adds a formal geometric component but also seems like a defensive barrier that has been pierced.

The furor that greeted these pictures shortly before the opening of their exhibition in 2013 at the Julie Saul Gallery led to press crews camping outside Svenson’s building. “It became so insane,” he said. Even though the people in the photos were not readily recognizable, they responded that they felt violated.

“Many people think when they are in the confines of their home that the window is a wall,” Svenson said. “I came uninvited into the room. In an urban situation, we have these layers of filters that are stacked, like on the lens of a camera. You have one filter when you’re walking the dog, another when you’re on the street to go shopping. Maybe you have zero filters for being at home.” By shooting people in their residences, he was flouting a convention that allows urban dwellers to coexist in tight proximity with the shared illusion of personal privacy.

In most photographs of people caught surreptitiously in public settings, the artist is seeking naked facial expressions, unmasking social self-presentation. Walker Evans’s undercover subway portraits (which he waited 25 years to publish) and Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s candid Times Square “Heads” (which incited a failed lawsuit much like the one against Svenson) fall into that category. Svenson’s are different. “I wasn’t looking at faces,” he said.

A woman twirling a long lock of her hair in the dim illumination of a floor lamp is a nocturne of beige and brown worthy of Whistler; the gorgeous genre scene supplies no information about its female subject. It is temptingly easy to compare any softly lit interior containing one or two people to Vermeer, but the resemblance in some of these images is hard to avoid. A woman with a towel over her head could be Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” all grown up — were she not looking down at her phone.

Nevertheless, they retain a whiff of the transgressive — the Peeping Tom quality that makes Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” creepy. When street photographers catch their unsuspecting subjects in public spaces, some critics object that the practice is ethically fraught. How much more problematic is it to eye such people relaxing at home?

The picture that set off the firestorm of litigation is of a mother holding up her blond daughter. Because of the legal uncertainty, Svenson excluded it from the book of 42 images he published in 2015. Before getting the shot he coveted, he waited a long time for the child’s hair to be tumbling in a yellow cascade. “I needed her to be a falling cherub, because that’s what I saw,” he said.

But he can now regard his work differently than when he was in the heat of the controversy. “It was difficult to separate the angst from the imagery,” he said. “It’s just recently that I can see them without that trigger effect of anxiety. I’m really happy to have them back with me.”

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