New York

Arne Svenson, The Neighbors #1, 2012, pigment print, 26 x 63".

Arne Svenson, The Neighbors #1, 2012, pigment print, 26 x 63".

Arne Svenson

Julie Saul Gallery

Arne Svenson, The Neighbors #1, 2012, pigment print, 26 x 63".

Arne Svenson’s photographic series “The Neighbors,” 2012–13, offers glimpses of people going about their lives at home. Among the dozen large-scale images that were on view here, arranged singly and in pairs, are domestic scenes both quotidian and strange: of a woman holding a pair of red-handled scissors; a couple eating breakfast and reading; a man stretched out to sleep on a sofa, a large toy giraffe lurking in the shadows. A sense of calm, almost a sweetness, pervades the photos. The furnishings look upscale, the apartments clean and well-appointed. We are kept, however, at a distance: The faces of the subjects are never shown in their entirety or, in most cases, at all. Most of the figures are seen from behind, or in shadow, or with heads cropped out of the frame.

The sense of remove is deliberate, or at least intrinsic to the project: Svenson took these photos from an adjacent building with a powerful telephoto lens. The windows through which he watched the subjects, as well as the partially lowered blinds, drawn drapes, and edges of the building, act in the photographs at times as a kind of grid, at others like off-kilter cartoon panels, severing features and keeping the action obscure. Abrupt cropping amplifies these effects. In Neighbors #1 (all works 2012), the man and woman breakfasting are framed by separate windows (the woman, pregnant, shares hers with her child-to-be) and their feet nearly meet under the table in a third, middle window. In Neighbors #4, we see, through a lowered shade, only the shadow of the occupant, deep in a chair or sofa and twirling a lock of hair. In Neighbors #7, there is only an elbow, a hip, and an ankle, seen through curtains parted ever so slightly.

The window glass in most images is streaked with everyday city dirt, diffusing the light and making the photographs seem painterly, although the colors remain vivid. Neighbors #2, in particular, has the presence of a portrait by John Singer Sargent: A woman in a long white coat is seen from behind, a gleam of gold at her wrist. She stands behind a copper-hued curtain that has been twisted and pulled diagonally across the window, rupturing the perfect geometries of the building’s exterior.

These works are quite beautiful, in some cases even arresting. Yet what animates them is an ethical tension, built into and inseparable from the way in which they were made. We rarely see how people appear when they think no one is looking at them. Much of modern life is lived in public, and we have adjusted ourselves accordingly; we are accustomed to arranging ourselves to be viewed or photographed at any time. The expectation of privacy, even in public, is something emotionally (indeed legally) in flux, as was previously evidenced by a lawsuit filed by the subject of one of the portraits in Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s 1999–2001 series of Times Square pedestrians shot from more than twenty feet away. (With the advent of Google Glass more than a decade later, the notion of privacy in public seems almost quaint.) DiCorcia’s works are thrilling for the same reason Svenson’s are. They depict bodies decidedly not arranged for a camera.

It is terrible to spy or feel spied on, and the photos in “The Neighbors” are magnetic for that very reason: As we lose our privacy, the images of privacy become more compelling to look at. Discussing the series in the New Yorker, Svenson seems oddly, even naively puzzled by his neighbors’ anger after they learned of his photographs. He claims he only wanted to make beautiful images of “the most human moments.” Is such a justification—the pure appreciation of unguarded human aesthetics—enough? Ultimately we were thrown back on the photographs, those uncomfortable and perhaps indefensible images. “Shades of the NSA,” one visitor wrote in the gallery guestbook.

Emily Hall