NEW YORK – In one photo, a woman is on all fours, presumably picking something up, her posterior pressed against a glass window. Another photo shows a couple in bathrobes, their feet touching beneath a table. And there is one of a man, in jeans and a T-shirt, lying on his side as he takes a nap.
In all the photos, taken by New York City artist Arne Svenson from his second-floor apartment, the faces are obscured or not shown. The people are unidentifiable.
But the residents of a glass-walled luxury residential building across the street had no idea they were being photographed and never consented to being subjects for the works of art that are now on display – and for sale – in a Manhattan gallery.
“I don’t feel it’s a violation in a legal sense, but in a New York, personal sense there was a line crossed,” said Michelle Sylvester, who lives in the residential building called the Zinc Building, which stands out with its floor-to-ceiling windows in a neighborhood of cobblestone streets and old, brick warehouse buildings.
Svenson’s apartment is directly across the street, just to the south, giving him a clear view of his neighbors by simply looking out his window.
“I think there’s an understanding that when you live here with glass windows, there will be straying eyes, but it feels different with someone who has a camera,” Sylvester said.
Svenson’s show, “The Neighbors,” opened May 11 at the Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea, where about a dozen large prints are on sale for as much as $7,500. His exhibit is drawing a lot of attention, not for the quality of the work, but for the manner in which it was made.
Svenson did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press, but says in material accompanying the exhibit that the idea for it came when he inherited a telephoto lens from a friend, a birdwatcher who recently died.
“For my subjects there is no question of privacy; they are performing behind a transparent scrim on a stage of their own creation with the curtain raised high,” Svenson says in the gallery notes. “The Neighbors don’t know they are being photographed; I carefully shoot from the shadows of my home into theirs.”
That explanation has done little to satisfy some residents of the Zinc Building, where a penthouse was once listed at nearly $6 million. In an email circulating among the building’s owners and renters this week, a resident whose apartment was depicted in Svenson’s photographs suggested legal recourse against the artist.
“I am not an expert in this area of the law, but I do think we may have some rights and the ability to stop this,” the email reads. “I love art, but find this to be an outrageous invasion of privacy.”
Civil-rights lawyer Norman Siegel said that according to New York civil rights law, there may be a way for Svenson’s subjects to challenge him in court but the case will depend entirely on context.
“The question for the person who’s suing is, if you’re not identifiable, then where’s the loss of privacy?” he said. “These issues are a sign of the times. How do you balance the right of privacy vis-à-vis the right of artistic expression?”
Linda Darcia, an exchange student from Colombia living with a family on the sixth floor facing Svenson’s studio, said she had no idea whether or not she was depicted in any of the pieces but she was anxious to go to the gallery and find out.
“I’m not really upset about it because that’s his job,” she said. “But maybe he should have asked before the gallery opens. Everybody’s talking about it.”