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Diatribe: “Fine Art” Or “Peeping Tom”?

05/18/2013

NeighborsMany years ago, before the invention of the digital camera, I had a friend who worked in a camera store and helped me to get a beautiful Nikon setup at a discounted price.  I assembled quite a few accessories, read a few books and called myself a freelance photographer.  I was hired to photograph several weddings and other projects but never found enough work to make a living.  Back then, taking a picture was a bigger investment than it is now, because the results weren’t immediate and mistakes could be costly, so I spent a lot of time setting up each shot.

At weddings, however, I enjoyed taking “candid” shots of the bride and groom, the wedding party and guests.  These action shots, often taken without the subject’s knowledge, often made for the most interesting photos.  Of course, the people that I photographed knew that I was there, that I was a photographer, that I was taking pictures and that they might be in some of them.

Recently, fine art photographer Arne Svenson opened an exhibit consisting of photographs taken of the residents of a building near his studio in New York through the windows of their apartments.  The showing, named “Neighbors” featured at the Julie Saul gallery, has angered many of the people who were unknowingly captured on file.  He defends his work as follows …

Some time ago, I began photographing the occupants of a neighboring building through the windows.  I’ve lived in Tribeca, in Lower Manhattan, for 30 years, and have built my life and studio here. The area has gone through many changes, and I watched the building across the way built from the ground up.  Made entirely of glass and steel, it offers residents views of the neighborhood — and neighbors and passersby views into the apartments.

As people filled the empty units, I was intrigued not only by the implied stories within the frame of the glass but also by the play of light upon the subjects, the shadows, the framing of the structure.  I don’t photograph anything salacious or demeaning — instead I record the turn of the head, the graceful arc of a hand, the human form obscured by drapery.

I am not photographing the residents as specific, identifiable individuals, but as representations of humankind.  In fact, I take great care in not revealing their identity; the strength of the imagery comes from us seeing ourselves in the anonymous figures of “The Neighbors.”

In New York, people are masters of being both the observer and the observed. We live so densely packed that contact is inevitable — even our homes are stacked facing each other.  It is no wonder that street photography was born in this city, and some of the best subjects and most famous works are the results of those who didn’t know they were being photographed or painted.

‘Neighbors’ has sparked a good bit of conversation.  While people differ in their opinions — as most do when it comes to art — I believe the images speak for themselves.  I encourage everyone to draw their own conclusions after seeing the work.”

I think I would be upset, too, if I had been photographed without knowing about it.  If he wasn’t a “fine art photographer” he’d be a Peeping Tom.  Maybe he took care to disguise the identity of the people in his shots but the building was identifiable and the contents of the apartments, etc. could be seen.  Most, I think, would be angry to learn that their young daughter, for example, had been photographed by some guy across the alley!

What do you think?  “Fine art” or “Peeping Tom”.

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6 Comments
  1. Barneysday permalink

    In this case, “Fine Art Photographer” is just another word for Peeping Tom. He is looking into peoples windows, into their apartments, without their knowledge. Isn’t that the definition of a peeping tom???

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  2. On the other hand if you live in an apartment and don’t draw the curtains you are inviting people to look in. With or without their cameras.

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  3. Creepy is the word that comes to mind. Your immediate thought if caught on film, is what else has he seen?

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  4. I’m of 2 minds here – first it feels a little creepy to have your picture taken without your knowledge. Secondly, if you don’t draw your window coverings & people can see in, then you are inviting them to look at you. I think if the photographer took care to keep the identities anonymous & did not take or publish revealing photos, then it should be okay.

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