Passepartout is all about documentaries and visual stuff I find worth seeing.

Painterly Peeks: Photos Capturing the Lives of Photographer Arne Svenson’s Unaware Neighbors

Apparently, New York photographer Arne Svenson inherited a 500 mm lens from a friend who was passionate about bird-watching. Svenson didn’t know much about birds but he put the lens to good use, taking these really beautiful pictures of his Manhattan neighbors. The neighbors weren’t as excited about the photos as I am, so guess what they did, not rocket science, they sued him. And he won. It was 2013 and a court decided that what he did – taking the photos and then exhibiting them in a nearby gallery – was something defensible under the First Amendament’s guarantee of free speech and the photos needed no consent to be made or to be sold. That’s good to know. I accidentally found this story and these amazing photos some days ago, when I started doing research for a photo project I want to pursue, a project for which I was wondering where’s the line between public and private.

I won’t tell more about my project but I’ll tell more about Svenson’s. To me the photos are beautiful, they have feeling and mystery and even though I guess most of the people in them can recognize themselves, I doubt anybody else can. Plus they make you wonder, are they staged, are they not? Are they paintings? Are they stills taken out of movies? In the end they’re just real life, a fact which once known surrounds them with a certain poetical tenderness.


Svenson is not the first to take ‘this kind’ of photos, ‘this kind’ meaning images that break the (debatable) boundary between public and what’s considered private. There are Michael Wolf’s photos of apartments in Hong Kong. The series is called Window Watching. Then there’s Gail Albert Halaban’s series in Paris, but this counts only half in this conversation because her photos are staged. The series is called VIS-a-VIS, Paris. There’s also Miroslav Tichy, whom I bet if you’d see peeking though your window you’d call the police. Or perhaps invite him for a meal.

Another series a dear photographer lady mentioned to me as something to think of for my project Shizuka Okomizo’s collection of photos of strangers in their homes. How he did it differs from peeking or so it seems to me. Okomizo wrote them a note telling about his project and asking them, if they agreed to be in the photos, to come look outside their window at a certain time on a certain date. The photos are more a showcase for what it’s like to get outside your comfort zone. A playground for strangers to meet, a bit unusual and a bit daring. And the photos are not so special, it’s more about the idea behind. And they’re certainly not intrusive in a way being photographed without you knowing or even being observed for a period of time is.



But levels of the photographer’s intrusion vary and can go to more extreme points in certain cases. I particularly like the concepts behind Sophie Calle‘s work, which to me are more about her own experience of doing them, the curiousness of the ideas and the discoveries she makes, and less about the photos themselves, which personally I don’t find particularly interesting. For example, for her project The Address Book she contacted all people found in an address book lost in Paris, wanting to get to know the owner without actually ever meeting him. There’s more about the project here.




Going back to Svenson, after 2013, he won again in court this year, same story, same photos. And meanwhile he finished a new project, documenting workers in a similar way he documented The Neighbors. See The Workers here.


© Arne Svenson

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