Category Archives: Looking Glass

Arne Svenson

“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.

Sam Kweskin

“Everything we build we’ve taken from nature. The ideas, the materials, the way things feel and look. Urban environments are human, but all the ideas and all the concepts come from nature, so there’s a direct correlation between the two.”

Nomadic environmental photographer Sam Kweskin often looks for the intersections between nature and the built environment, both capturing elegant shots of cities and machinery, while subtly highlighting where man is encroaching upon the natural world. He alternates between the macro and the micro, capturing much of his work from an aerial angle, but also observing urban life from a distance, and infrastructure from so close the naked eye fails to grasp the identity of a larger iconic site.

RUINS: Your personal work has a tremendous sense of scale, and a unique graphic quality to it. What led you to aerials and landscapes, and drew you into that graphic approach to the aesthetic?
KWESKIN: When you get up in the air, it really sets the scale, and sets the tone for how big we are in the grand scheme of things. I try to find those places where nature and man are coming together.

How much planning do you put into your shoots in advance, versus how much of it is an instinctive, on-the-fly kind of thing?
It’s a combination of both. I start with an idea of an area, and then it becomes an exploration. In the past, it was very much just—get in the car— or I would just be on a plane and find somewhere new, just kind of stuck with wherever you’re kind of driving through. Now, more and more you can use Google Earth, you can get a little more planned, and be more intentional with what you’re doing. I’d say for the most part it’s kind of random exploration, like on the L.A. River series. I definitely had intentions I was exploring, and the river was my entry point—same with the Corn series.

How do you relate to the urban environment in your work?
In a city environment, I guess it’s a bit more of trying to see the moment before it happens. It becomes a game of trying to predict the future, or lining your self up and trying to get just that right moment.

What do urban environments have in common with nature, having shot both prolifically?
You find similar forms. The urban environment’s what we’ve organized, then you get out to nature and nature’s organized everything. Everything we build we’ve taken from nature. The ideas, the materials, the way things feel and look. Urban environments are human, but all the ideas and all the concepts come from nature, so there’s a direct correlation between the two.

What city has left the deepest impression on you?
Something about Paris has always really resonated. It’s so organized, and it’s so refined, and it’s such a contrast to Los Angeles, where I grew up. It has similar light to Los Angeles in a weird way, but something about the organization and refinement out there is really interesting. There’s something about the fact that most all of the buildings are at one height that really just gives you a sense of horizon that you get in nature, but you rarely get in urban environments. You are able to see this mass of humanity, but then see really far at the same time, just by getting slightly elevated of a view. The clouds seem to roll in more often than not. You get such a variety of light.

How might you imagine the future of cities from above? What do you imagine Paris being like in like, 2050? How will that change the information in the photograph?
It’s kind of stating the obvious, but as the sprawl continues, there’s going to be more and more opportunities for people like myself to find those interactions between the raw nature and where mankind is approaching and taking over.

What do you imagine in the actual infrastructure, and technology, and architecture of the cities, how that will change in the course of the next 35 years?
Inevitably, we’re going up, both physically with the buildings, and more and more with our travel. Even just from the time I started doing aerial stuff, 10 plus years ago, and now, look at drones. Not everyone has the ability to have that perspective, and it’s becoming more and more of a normal perspective for people to experience. I think instead of being on the XY axis, we’re going to have third dimension up there. We’re going to be flying around cars in the not so distant future.

What is the next step for your work?
I’m going to be getting into more work about consumption, and waste. As I’ve seen these cities grow and push further and further into nature, and you see how much stuff is being used. I think we need to find a more harmonious way to interact, and to live, and to consume. Fresh Kills that we shot is an example where you just had these huge lots of space that are just filled with all of our waste. It’s interesting to find a way to reuse that space and turn it into something pretty again. We also really, really need to figure out a way not to be putting that much stuff back into the ground. I don’t want to feel like I was on this planet, and just consumed a bunch of stuff, and just lived a very selfish life.

What struck you the most about shooting Fresh Kills?
I was surprised how big it was, the scale of it was pretty amazing. It was a little haunting to think about all the 9/11 debris in there. I was thinking about some of those ghosts.

Is there anyone who influenced your work, or influenced your decisions to go into photography?
I would say Edward Burtynsky, the contemporary photographer, was definitely influential. I saw his first show about 15 years ago. There is a craftsmanship in his imagery and a beauty, then there’s a thought-provoking side which is very masterful. Also, the photographer Harry Callahan. He was a working class guy from the Midwest that did amazing work shooting the streets of Chicago and the natural environments of the surrounding area. His playfulness with light, form, and texture play heavily in my work. Over 10 years ago I saw a show of his Nickel Tailings series from Canada and it blew my mind. To make work that beautiful, and to inform the public of the effects of our so called progress on the planet in such a way, is a very powerful combination to me.

Danielle Levitt

“I come from a place of acceptance and celebration. I don’t aim to tell anyone’s story, and I don’t aim to view any group through a lens of other.”

Photographer and director Danielle Levitt’s body of work includes editorials in the world’s top magazines and enviable advertising campaigns for corporate clients. Despite the breadth of her projects, everything she does is filtered through her unique worldview giving her work a powerful cohesiveness. The purest expression of this—no surprise—is found in Levitt’s intimate personal work, which explores the evolving landscape of contemporary American youth culture.

Her images of American youth movements—BMX riders, thrash core punks, beauty queens, high school footballers, Wyoming rodeo riders, teenage werewolves—inspires us to think differently about culture, place and identity. Here, we’ve studied and selected some of our favorites and chatted with Danielle about intention and process.

RUINS: We love the sense of place we get from your work. It’s like your subjects are part of the fabric of their surroundings. What drives you into these less-explored pockets of Americana?
LEVITT: I love passionate people, and I think that young people are less inhibited or refined—they can appropriate culture in a way that feels exploratory and fun. When you see someone who has found a sense of self and a family that is powerful because, on a very basic level, we all know what it’s like to be confused and seeking. So when you see a person or a group of people for whom that has been somewhat alleviated, that is very special. Also trends change, and morph, and go away. It’s important to record these things.

How do you approach your work tonally?
I come from a place of acceptance and celebration. I don’t aim to tell anyone’s story and I don’t aim to view any group through a lens of “other.” I offer a platform to people who I think are owning themselves and give them a chance to say how that feels for them and what family looks like, what cool is to them, and what is important.

Do you find the quality of light changes dramatically from one city to the next? How does this affect the images?
Ha, yes it definitely does. My work is about photographing people in their environments so my subjects don’t ever look divorced from the atmosphere. Of course, if I’m photographing goths in southern California, then the sunny warm light is an interesting contrast to what is expected. There’s always an intention to it.

How do you find your subjects in such far flung locales? How has the internet changed the way you work?
I have an amazing team who support me. With the advent of Instagram also, I am able to find these kids that before we’re not as easily accessed. Before I just traveled around, and spoke to everyone. I’m not shy, so if I see someone on the street, I’ll approach them. I also like to remain in contact with young people I’ve worked a lot with so they end up putting me in touch with or onto different young people or trends. Everyone sees people on the street who are different, or hears “crazy” or “inspiring” stories—this is just my job so I go after those leads.

Gail Albert Halaban

“Voyeurism implies that you’re going to look at somebody and not acknowledge the exchange. To me, with this work, you’re acknowledging that there’s actually a two-way relationship.”

Inspired by time spent as a temporary shut-in following the birth of her daughter, photographer Gail Albert Halaban began shooting pictures of her neighbors (with their permission) through the windows of her Manhattan apartment. The exercise soon became her means of connecting to the outside world, an escape from the exile of diaper changes and sleep deprivation. The artful result, Out My Window, a photo series showcasing city dwellers at their most unguarded, caught the eye of Cathy Remy, an editor from French newspaper Le Monde’s M magazine, who subsequently commissioned Halaban for a Paris-focused spread. After the assignment the photographer was inspired to continue shooting the city and temporarily expatriated, gathering much of the material for her book Paris Views (published in October 2014 by Aperture).

Each of Halaban’s images transforms the ordinary and the routine (like the image of a young girl practicing the clarinet, or a lone woman scolding her dogs) into an intriguing world with unspoken backstories. One of the series’ greatest strengths is its ability to confirm aesthetic Parisian tropes—elegantly decaying buildings, climbing-ivy windowsill gardens, and seemingly neverending glasses of merlot—while displaying the reality-bathed day-to-day life of one of the most romanticized cities in history. The result is unretouched and full exposure—unmade beds and all.

While though Halaban’s Manhattan subjects proved exceedingly easy to win over (“From the over 200 people I asked to take part in the New York project only one said no,” she told Ruins), she came up against a few roadblocks with their French counterparts. “In Paris no one wants to admit that they do it [spy on their neighbors]. They are much more private, so at first it was very hard. Some of the initial people I asked said, ‘That must be illegal’, or ‘Nobody is going to do that here.’” However, the photographer’s exposure in Le Monde, coupled with her engaging personality, put potential subjects at ease and elevated her status from peeping tom to esteemed artist.

Halaban may have executed this project with the impersonal gaze of a surgeon (a tad ironic as she originally attended Brown University for pre-med), but she still managed to infuse her work with warmth and compassion, making it feel more akin to a visit from a family friend than a still from Rear Window. “I became a photographer because I’m interested in people, and really wanted to get to know and connect with them,” she says.“My first job out of college was in a pediatric psychiatric hospital. Part of my role was to film kids and their families, and code for certain behaviors and actions for signs of mental illness. I began to realize that there were certain gestures and subtle ways people interact that tell you so much about who they are. I loved that job and how I connected with the families—that has been much of the motivation for my photographic work.” After swapping med school for an MFA from Yale, Halaban went on to study with downtown docu-photographer Nan Goldin, whose intimate and occasionally tragic portrait studies are echoed through her protégé’s work.

While Halaban is essentially inviting the public to peer into someone’s private life, she insists her art is the farthest thing from voyeurism. “Voyeurism implies that you’re going to look at somebody and not acknowledge the exchange. To me, with this work, you’re acknowledging that there’s actually a two-way relationship.”