New York City secret photo exhibition: Art or invasion of privacy?

A visitor views the photography of Arne Svenson on Thursday at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York.
A visitor views the photography of Arne Svenson on Thursday at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York.
(Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press)

Residents of a Tribeca apartment building are fuming over a new exhibition of photographs in which they star -- and which were taken without their knowledge. Some of the residents are considering legal action, the New York Post reported.

The apartment building is luxurious, a tower of glass and steel.

The photographs, aimed at its windows from afar, are mysteriously muted and voyeuristic.


The subjects of the photos? Outraged.

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L.A. native Arne Svenson’s “The Neighbors,” which opened at the Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea on Saturday and had showed at L.A.’s Western Project earlier this year, feels a little more like Hitchcock’s 1954 “Rear Window” than contemporary photography.

Svenson took the pictures – one of which is hanging in the New York gallery at 5 feet by 2 feet -- from his second floor loft across the street with a bird-watching Telephoto lens that he inherited from a friend who’d passed away. They depict the residents doing mundane activities – languid afternoon naps or vigorous floor-scrubbing – and the subjects’ faces are obscured.

Still, the residents of 475 Greenwich St. are terribly upset about the photos.

“This is about kids. 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,” one resident told the Post.

Clifford Finn, who didn’t comment on whether he appears in the exhibition, said: “A grown man should not be able to photograph kids in their rooms with a Telephoto lens.”

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Julie Saul, owner of the gallery, told the Los Angeles Times that her reaction to the residents’ anger is “total shock.” The public’s reaction since the exhibition’s opening, she says, has been overwhelmingly positive.

“They think it’s beautiful. What really resonates is the quietness and contemplativeness and universality. You can really relate to the characters, who are completely unidentifiable – and that was deliberate.”

A May “Art in America” review of the Western Project show in L.A. called Svenson’s images, “Meticulously crafted and composed, his photographs raise voyeurism to the level of high art as well as imbue it with a large dose of humanism.”

Western Project declined to comment on the show.

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Svenson, 60, has shown with Julie Saul Gallery since 1992 and with Western Project since it opened in 2003.

“For my subjects, there is no question of privacy,” he said in the exhibition statement. “They are performing behind a transparent scrim on a stage of their own creation with the curtain raised high.”

He recently had a solo exhibition, “About Face,” at Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum and his work is in the collections of Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He’s also the recipient of the 2008 Nancy Graves Foundation grant and the 2005 James D. Phelan Art Award in photography.

About “The Neighbors,” Svenson added in his statement: “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.”


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