Art, Or Invasion Of Privacy? Photographer Arne Svenson’s MCA Exhibit Raises Eyebrows

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Photo: Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

Residents of a New York high rise didn't know they would become works of art. They were photographer Arne Svenson's neighbors at the time he took their pictures. He did not get their permission. Some sued him, but lost. Now, these images are on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. The exhibition is called "The Neighbors."

Fine art critic Ray Mark Rinaldi wrote about it for the Denver Post. He says he found the photos "deeply offensive." MCA curator Nora Burnett Abrams says the artist's intention was not exploitation. They spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner. Edited highlights are below. Click on the audio link above to hear the full conversation.

Rinaldi on the moment when he saw Swenson's images for the first time:

"Well, it's interesting. They're beautiful images. You can't help but be seduced by them. They’re romantic and they’re soft and they’re really really intimate. You know, by every definition I have of good art, this art qualifies. It's a complicated exhibit. You suddenly start realizing as you walk through it that, you know, these are probably overly intimate moments that Arne Svenson is catching. It's a complicated exhibit and there's a lot of layers to look at it, but one thing is really not complex about it. And that's the way of Arne Svenson got his material."

Nora Burnett Abrams on how Svenson captured the material:

"Arne actually inherited a telephoto lens from a birder friend that had passed away. That was in about 2011, and he started to just kind of play around with it. He’s not actually formally trained as a photographer, so he had never worked with that kind of a camera before. And he was just kind of fascinated by what he could capture, which was primarily the light and water and dirt on these windows of a building across the street from his studio in Tribeca, New York City.

"So he was kind of exploring what the camera could do really and started to -- the building across the street was a kind of glass and steel structure that had these very pronounced window frames and they kind of created this naturally geometric kind of frame for the windows which often had curtains or shades. And so they just kind of lent themselves to these geometric compositions.

"Slowly, kind of, as he began taking more of these photos, he would see a hand or he would see a body kind of walk by, to move by, and it would affect the the drapery or something. And so he became really excited by these kind of everyday moments that he was capturing."

Abrams on the evolution of Svenson’s work:

"He really was fascinated in subtle, not salacious or sexy or even dramatic moments. It's these very quiet moments of people going about their everyday lives that he was really kind of, I would say, intrigued by."

Rinaldi on Svenson’s obsession:

"That’s where I have problems with this exhibit. For a year and a half he put a telephoto lens through his neighbors' windows and took photos of them doing very intimate things like grooming themselves, like arguing with their spouses, like sleeping. Like, he took pictures of their children, of them disciplining their children, he took pictures of pre-adolescent girls with their shirts off."

Abrams on Svenson’s motivations:

"His intention in capturing all of these was to really honor the kind of intimate and beautiful and poignant moments that he observed. And I think to paint a picture of him as this kind of peeping tom is an inaccurate assessment of what the project was about. Ryan, in fact you introduced us by saying this was a debate between art and voyeurism. I think there's actually a very long tradition of voyeuristic photography that dates back to the 19th Century in the invention of the moving or mobile camera, so I don't think that what Arnie was doing represents a kind of really salacious or exploitative project."

Rinaldi on being able to identify people in the photos:

"I don't think that that Svenson was was doing anything sort of perverted or had bad intentions, but this is not a victimless crime … I challenge anyone to go to the MCA and see if they can't identify the faces of at least a few people in that exhibit, including the the young girl in question. It’s very easy to identify her. … Everyone in lower Manhattan knows where that building is. Everyone knows who lives there. Everyone knows sort of the clothes they wear and ... the jewelry they have, and the floor they live on. You can put two and two together. The privacy was violated."

Abrams on the artistic value of the images:

"The individuals who were captured are more archetypes, are characters rather than Mr. Jones living on floor three. And I think that that's part of the allure and strength of the series as a whole -- is that I'm not looking at a portrait of you, Ryan, I'm looking at a man who is sleeping on the couch and therefore I can imagine so many different stories around why he is doing that or what he might be dreaming about or why he's tired and needs a nap in the middle of the day."

Rinaldi on the expectation of privacy:

"Nora talks about this in sort of this objective way, but if you're one of those people who were in the building you are a victim of this. You're traumatized. In effect, here's the deal: We see like 12 photos by Arne Svensen, or 20, at the MCA. We know he took thousands, right? We know the guy took thousands of photos. So, you know, what's on his hard drive? That's kind of creepy to me and actually in interviews that is what the people who live in that building say. Like, great, OK, so maybe I'm protected here, but what does he have of me? … I say that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. And that if we are all going to get along, we have to respect that. "