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The Globe and Mail

New York artist faces backlash over voyeuristic photos

A man views photographs by Arne Svenson at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York.

Associated Press

Imagine going to an art show opening only to discover that you are unwittingly captured in one of the artist's works. And not just on the street, but napping, cleaning or reading in your own apartment.

A New York artist is facing backlash over photos currently on display in a Chelsea gallery that show carefully cropped images of residents in a building across the street from his studio.

People quoted in the New York Post would either not give their name or not acknowledge being in the photos but expressed anger toward artist Arne Svenson. "If he's waiting there for hours with his camera, who knows what kind of footage he has. I can recognize items from my daughter's bedroom," says a resident of 457 Greenwich St. in Tribeca.

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Meanwhile, the press release from the Julie Saul Gallery describes the show as "voyeuristic and investigative" and only obliquely acknowledges Svenson's invasion of privacy: "The Neighbours is social documentation in a very rarified environment. The large colour prints have been cropped to various orientations and sizes to condense and focus the action."

Apparently, because the artist does not show faces in the images, he may not be subject to action for wrongdoing under privacy law. The photos – each an edition of five – are being sold for up to $7,500 (U.S.).

The Post includes a statement from the show in which artist describes himself this way: "I am not unlike the birder, quietly waiting for hours, watching for the flutter of a hand or a movement of a curtain as an indication that there is life within."

Note to Svenson: You sound like a stalker, not a birdwatcher.

Granted, the inherent reality of living in a high-density urban area is that there are more opportunities to be a voyeur – even if unintentionally. Back in 1954, director Alfred Hitchcock played with this tension in Rear Window, also set in Lower Manhattan. And the continuing trend toward glass curtain wall condos makes accidental peeping inevitable. One could also argue that people photographed without permission on the street have a right to be equally upset. But the situations are not the same; Svenson's subjects are inside their homes.

Provocative art can often be defended if it furthers a new way of thinking. In a way, the works would have been more interesting if they had been staged to look as if he were playing Peeping Tom. At least this would imply the effort that goes into making art appear effortless.

None of this likely matters to Svenson, who may even be benefiting from the attention. (Had you heard of him before? Didn't think so.) But if he feels so inclined to do a follow-up series, he should be prepared to shoot the neighbours' curtains.

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