Archives About Staff BagNews is dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.
May 20, 2013

People Who Live in Glass Boxes: The Arne Svenson Tribeca Telephoto Controversy


Svenson Tribeca 2

So WPIX is calling Arne Svenson “the peeping Tom artist photographing neighbors”? That’s what you get, I guess, for surreptitiously photographing peeps in a Tribeca luxury apartment building across the way, then turning around and selling those prints (to the equally well-heeled) as voyeuristic fantasies in an exhibition at an exclusive Chelsea gallery.

Clearly, the hostility directed at Svenson by his unwitting subjects is a class issue. This would be clear had Svenson been shooting through the windows of a tenement, or even a building full of middle-class folk … though, try finding such a swank building in Manhattan occupied by the middle class! And then, how is it Svenson didn’t know that, in a city build on wealth and status, money — floating glass boxes or not — also buys you transparency? And how dare Mr. Svenson presume to gaze on his economic superiors unawares – especially when they might be picking their noses? Privacy might be something bestowed on all Americans by the Constitution as a legal right, but it — like much else — goes doubly for the rich.

And then, I’m also wondering how much the offense was compounded by Svenson framing one of these sky box residents as if down on her knees cleaning the floor in her lovely skirt? (Looking at the photo, by the way, that’s not what it looks like she’s doing. It’s not surprising the media would suggest such a reading, however, to stoke the  degradation — far worse, of course, than napping in the afternoon while all the wage slaves are toiling away out there.

Svenson Tribeca 3

At the same time — not just based on the selection of images published at PetaPixel, the NY Post and the Daily Mail, but the images in the exhibition — it seems the brouhaha has been horribly overblown. Frankly, how scandalous is the back of somebody sleeping, or how pervish, even, is the back of a teen sitting in a chair? I mean, talk about pulling your punches.

(photos: Arne Svenson/Julie Saul Gallery)

  • marjorie k

    I don’t see this as a class issue. Michelle Iverson brought similar controversy on herself by photographing middle class people through their windows without their consent. “Pervishness” is an ultimate issue, but it springs from the right to consent to loss of privacy. The photographer in this case is using a lens to see closer into windows. That’s crass and invasive no matter the income level of the victim.

  • black_dog_barking

    These are images of life being lived, images you won’t find in history books, images of the infrastructure of our existence. Privacy is very valuable, so is sharing. In these images we are sharing private moments, moments we all experience that don’t normally rise to the level of recording. Given the choice of attending a Presidential bill signing ceremony or taking an afternoon nap I’m likely to choose the nap, even if there are no photographers around to capture that moment.

    • looking4countrylife

      The photographs are gorgeous, and not demeaning in the least. And most media dealing with them out of context, of course….
      Big deal over nothing; an artist making his art. This is NYC — there is ALWAYS someone looking! If you don’t like it, close your curtains. (And yes, of course it’s a class issue. Do you think that down-on-her-luck woman in the famous Dorthea Lange photo ever saw a dime once that image was ubiquitous? I doubt it, and no one sued Lange either.)

    • aSouthernMan

      Speaking of life being lived, you might find this interesting too.
      (Paris apt recently found untouched since WW2, frozen moments in pics)

  • black_dog_barking

    The child in the chair is poised at a moment of transition — from childhood to looming adult-ness. In content and composition the phota recalls for me memories of peeking in on my own children in (rare!!) moments of such quiet, moments in which I remembered my own childhood and the same moments of quiet and transition.

    Beautiful and resonant image. Eavesdropping perhaps but peeping? Never. We just quietly close the door and tip toe down the hall.

  • billybob

    Class issues? You’re reaching here, badly. Focus on the subject at hand.

  • bystander

    I find this amusing. Folks live in small glass cubes inside a great big glass cube, where “surround-by-glass” was probably a big selling point… and when one of the “strengths” of why they purchased/rented/sublet turns out to be a “weakness” they’re shocked? If I were a photographer, how could I resist? The shots are ready made; nearly pre-framed, artfully arranged, almost as though folks had posed for them.

    All I want to know is how did Svenson get the clarity he got shooting through so many layers of glass… unless the window washers had recently serviced his building and theirs. My windows would still have been badly obscured by dog nose prints on the inside half way up.

    If this isn’t the neighbor’s intent, window treatments, people!

  • Cactus

    If you want privacy, close
    your effin’ drapes. It always amazes me that New Yorkers just assume everybody
    must behave better than they do. The myopia involved in believing one lives in
    the one city at the center of the world leads to all sorts of

    On the whole, I find these photos to be too pretty, too posed, too
    perfect to be simply candid shots of a peeping Tom. Has everybody just cleaned
    their windows inside and out? No water marks or streaks? No sign of curtains
    or drapes anywhere? Even the metal frames of the windows seem pristine.

    They also seem to have a faint reach-back to the iconic paintings
    of the Dutch 17th century; Vermeer comes to mind, or Steen. The trigger for
    that connection was the photo of the woman in the green skirt. It seems the
    material of the skirt is more important than the woman.

    Very interesting photos, but not sure I totally buy the ‘candid’


  • aSouthernMan

    This was an update that just published, adding to the thread for reference:

    Judge backs the right of creepy Tribeca artist to photograph
    people through their windows

Refresh Archives

Random Notes