by Aaron Leaf
“I am much more interested in the way light illuminates the turn of an arm or the back of a head, conveying an infinity of possible situations and emotions, than I am of capturing a face which, in all probability, when confronted with a camera will be shrouded in well-practiced, derivative expressions.”
Despite the public fervor whipped up over Arne Svenson’s telescopic intrusions in his watershed series The Neighbors, the photographer is certain that his images were never intended to be about surveillance—and the courts of New York agreed, exonerating him twice from claims of privacy invasion. Svenson argues that his act of non-consensually photographing his neighbors from windows was instead intended to capture the nuances of motion.
The right to photograph people in public has long been established legally. It’s the cornerstone for a surveillance regime that blankets practically every corner of our cities and leads to the adoption of new technologies like police drone surveillance. Many artists, Trevor Paglen for example, are trying to engage directly with the surveillance state and questioning its power and challenging its basis. But how does Svenson see his place among these artists? We reached out to Svenson in New York to try and explain this disconnect between how he sees his art and how the greater public might see it.
RUINS: We’ve seen your work labeled as “surveillance art,” a medium that Andy Warhol helped to popularize and which has historically been interested in the idea of privacy, national security issues, and the act of secretly documenting something. Your work, despite the mechanical similarities, seems to focus far more on gestures and moments rather than the political underpinnings around the work’s production. What do you think of this label and how it applies to you?
SVENSON: Given the nature of the work, I think it inappropriate: surveillance, and the topical issues surrounding it, was the furthest thing from my mind when I began shooting for The Neighbors project. My intent was to record the nuances of motion, or lack thereof, which reveal who we are, the tiny scenarios and gestures that define our humanness. Vignettes of quietude were what I was really searching for—those times when we are drained of action and contemplation becomes a visible, recordable event. I felt that the only way to capture these small ripples of emotion were if the subject was unaware of being photographed, hence my turning the camera to the building across from my studio.
Also, regarding the surveillance label: Throughout the series I was stringent in not revealing the identities of the subjects because to do so would have severely restricted the narrative possibilities inherent in the photographs. I am much more interested in the way light illuminates the turn of an arm or the back of a head, conveying an infinity of possible situations and emotions, than I am of capturing a face which, in all probability, when confronted with a camera will be shrouded in well-practiced, derivative expressions.
Shooting through windows gives the images a “painterly presence” that you seem to have pushed even farther with Workers. What do these overt connections between your images and academic painting mean to you?
I’ve long been interested in melding thematic, stylistic and illusionary aspects of painting and photography, but when I started shooting The Neighbors I had no idea that any such connections would surface. It wasn’t until I looked at the initial image playbacks that I realized the mullions of the windows created a Mondrian-like structure within which discrete visual narratives appeared. And when we printed the work, it became apparent that the dirt on the windows was refracting the light in such a way as to give a painterly cast over the photographs. After viewing these phenomena I started seeing specific paintings as I shot and certain unconscious memories of historical work by artists such as Hopper and Vermeer seemingly guided my eye.
With The Workers series I actively courted the painting reference by not only shooting through light-distorting dirty windows again, but by formatting the images as ovals, referencing the 17th century Dutch portrait paintings of Frans Hals, among others. I used the oval format as a framing device to signify a window but also to confer a class status not usually afforded those that work with their hands.
So where we experienced the subjects in The Neighbors at leisure in their luxury apartments, here we see the worker’s hands, elbows, backs and shoulders concentrating on the task at hand—building more palaces in the sky.
Will you continue to work in a similar vein or do something different —what’s next?
Currently I’m working on The Birds, a series I photographed in Scandinavia earlier this year. Though unpopulated by people, it is a further exploration of that amorphous region between painting and photography.