Peeping tom or artist: Whose derriere is it, any way?

Does secretly photographing your neighbors inside their homes violate their privacy? The answer depends on which side of the lens you’re on.

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Here’s a quick personality quiz. Let’s say you’re taking an evening stroll through your neighborhood. You walk by a house and you see a member of the opposite sex undressing in front of an open window. What do you do?

Do you avert your eyes and move on, or do you stand there and wait for the show to be over? Do you ring your neighbor and politely suggest they keep their curtains drawn? Or do you hide behind a bush, whip out your telephoto lens camera, take a series of shots, put them on canvas, and sell them for thousands of dollars a pop?

If you’re New York City art photographer Arne Svenson, you probably went with option C. And now your neighbors are hopping mad.

Svenson is in the middle of a privacy kerfuffle over shots he took of his NYC neighbors from inside his apartment using a powerful telephoto lens. These are now on display at the Julie Saul Gallery in Manhattan with price tags in the $7,000 range. Many of the neighbors, who didn’t know about the photos until news coverage of the show, are incensed. 

Here’s the shot most of the coverage seems to be focused on (no pun intended):

As my old friend and colleague Harry Miller jokes, it offers an entirely new twist on the concept of Rear Window. There’s also a silhouette of a very pregnant woman, people lounging in bed, a woman with her hair wrapped in a towel who apparently just got out of the shower. They’re all very intimate, though not in a sexual sense. No one’s face is directly visible.

The photographer’s rationale:

“For my subjects, there is no question of privacy,” he said in a statement accompanying the exhibit. “They are performing behind a transparent scrim on a stage of their own creation with the curtain raised high. The neighbors don’t know they are being photographed; I carefully shoot from the shadows of my home into theirs.

“I am not unlike the birder, quietly waiting for hours, watching for the flutter of a hand or a movement of a curtain as an indication that there is life within.”

Right. He’s just a birder. Only instead of “birder” substitute the word “perv.”

People who perform on stage choose to do so and they’re usually aware of it; these people didn’t even know they were being photographed, nor did they give permission for these shots to be used. Some of the residents of that building told reporters later they didn’t mind, but the time to find that out is before you take the photos, not after.

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