Atlantic Cities

If a Photographer Takes a Picture of You Through Your Apartment Window, Is it Art?

If a Photographer Takes a Picture of You Through Your Apartment Window, Is it Art?
via arnesvenson.com

By now you've probably heard about the New York City artist Arne Svenson, whose new photography exhibition has been making the media rounds from the New York Post to the Today show, but here's the gist in case you haven't. Using a telephoto lens, and assuming the behavioral perspective of a bird-watcher, Svenson made unwitting subjects of the residents of the Tribeca building beside his. He calls the series "The Neighbors."

The neighbors aren't happy.

Both Svenson and the Manhattan gallery exhibiting the work are adamant that "The Neighbors" is art of the highest order. The pictures do have a quotidian elegance to them — the galley calls them "social documentation in a very rarified environment" — and Svenson has appeared thoughtful about the project in interviews. He told the New Yorker he wanted to capture "the most quiet moments, the most human moments," and that he hoped his subjects liked what he'd created.

For the most part, they have not. Although Svenson obscured faces and other identifiable characteristics, the neighbors living at 475 Greenwich Street felt a painful sense of violation. Some were offended that Svenson had included shots of children. ("A grown man should not be able to photograph kids in their rooms with a telephoto lens," one neighbor told the Post.) Others shuddered to think what kinds of shots he had that he simply wasn't putting on display.

The tensions increased a notch last week when two of the neighbors, Martha and Matthew Foster, filed a complaint [PDF] against Svenson in New York County court. The Fosters live on the fourth floor with two children, a 2-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl. Svenson's original exhibition included two photographs of the infants: in one, Mrs. Foster holds the boy in a diaper, with the daughter standing near them in a bathing suit.

The Fosters allege that their children's faces are "clearly recognizable" in the shots, that images could attract unsavory attention, and that they "must keep their shades down at all hours of the day." They were also dismayed to learn that the photographs of their kids had been on sale for $5,000 to $7,500 apiece. Svenson did remove the Fosters from his exhibition when approached by an attorney, but the Fosters still want to strip him of all remaining images and to bar him from any further photographic intrusions:

The above described conduct of defendant so shocks the conscience and is so out of keeping with the standards of morality in the community as to evince an intentional or reckless disregard of its likelihood to cause severe emotional distress to the Fosters.

The lawsuit remains in its early stages, but in time it could establish a critical line between artistic license and personal intrusion. The core question here is how much privacy city residents have the right to expect.

On the one hand, there's a long history of street photography, going back to the likes of Walker Evans in the 1930s and continuing up through the work of Rebecca Davis today. As Christopher Zara of the International Business Times points out, capturing images of a person in a public urban setting, from the subway to a park, is a "well-established norm for artists" that's been upheld in court. City residents may not love being on camera in public, but they've come to expect it — and with law enforcement relying more and more on video technology, that reality is here to stay.

On the other hand, surely there's an argument to be made for drawing a line at the home. Gone are the days when photographic reproduction required a great of deal effort for limited distribution. Today everyone with a phone not only has a pretty good still or video camera but also the means to document a moment for eternity with ease. Do we really want to exist in a world where simply forgetting to close the shades could instantly and irreparably change our lives?

The situation becomes more complicated from the broader perspective of urban growth. Increased density in cities means more windows closer together. If avoiding windows or designing smaller ones are the best alternatives to constant exposure, we have reduced the quality of life in the city dramatically. Considering the evidence on the cognitive benefits of exposure to urban nature, it doesn't seem all that unreasonable to argue for window privacy on the grounds of public health.

There are innumerable ethical, moral, and civil liberties questions involved here, and readers will no doubt form many of their own. (Should the so-called Castle Law, for instance, extend to intrusions that begin outside the castle? Should not a person's peace of mind be subject to the same protections as one's physical health?) There are likewise no easy answers, though the New York court system might have a first one for us to debate soon enough.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

Join the Discussion