Skip to main content

'Neighbors': Both anonymous and intimate

By Arne Svenson, Special to CNN
updated 1:59 PM EDT, Sat May 18, 2013
This photo, "The Neighbors #5," 2012, from photographer Arne Svenson's series, "The Neighbors," is one of several being exhibited at <a href='http://www.saulgallery.com/' target='_blank'>Julie Saul Gallery</a> in New York. This photo, "The Neighbors #5," 2012, from photographer Arne Svenson's series, "The Neighbors," is one of several being exhibited at Julie Saul Gallery in New York.
HIDE CAPTION
Photographer Arne Svenson's neighbors
Photographer Arne Svenson's neighbors
Photographer Arne Svenson's neighbors
Photographer Arne Svenson's neighbors
Photographer Arne Svenson's neighbors
Photographer Arne Svenson's neighbors
Photographer Arne Svenson's neighbors
Photographer Arne Svenson's neighbors
Photographer Arne Svenson's neighbors
Photographer Arne Svenson's neighbors
Photographer Arne Svenson's neighbors
Photographer Arne Svenson's neighbors
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Fine art photographer Arne Svenson's artworks encompass many subjects
  • Svenson photographed occupants of nearby building through the windows
  • Their faces were hidden, but some objected because they were unaware of camera
  • Svenson says portraits are powerful because we recognize ourselves in them

Editor's note: Arne Svenson is a fine art photographer and a former therapist/educator working with severely disabled children.

(CNN) -- Photographer Arne Svenson's show, "Neighbors," consists of photographs taken of the residents of a building near his studio in New York through the windows of their apartments. A few residents, unaware they were being photographed, have raised objections. In this column, Svenson explains his process and his work.

My art practice has led me down many and varied paths of visual exploration -- from landscape photographs of Las Vegas to portraits of sock monkeys, chewed dog toys and medical museum specimens.

Currently, in collaboration with the Andy Warhol Museum, I am working on a long-term portrait project with a group of autistic teenagers. Given my background as a special education teacher, I find this a particularly rewarding homecoming.

First and foremost, my practice seeks out the inner life -- the essence -- of my subjects, whether they be human or inanimate. I use my camera as a writer uses text, to create a narrative that helps the viewer understand what might lie hidden or obscured. This narrative, at times only a whisper or suggestion, weaves throughout my bodies of work.

Some time ago, I began photographing the occupants of a neighboring building through the windows. I've lived in Tribeca, in Lower Manhattan, for 30 years, and have built my life and studio here. The area has gone through many changes, and I watched the building across the way built from the ground up. Made entirely of glass and steel, it offers residents views of the neighborhood -- and neighbors and passersby views into the apartments.

As people filled the empty units, I was intrigued not only by the implied stories within the frame of the glass but also by the play of light upon the subjects, the shadows, the framing of the structure. I don't photograph anything salacious or demeaning -- instead I record the turn of the head, the graceful arc of a hand, the human form obscured by drapery.

The photographs make up a show called "Neighbors," which opened a week ago at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York, and some people have raised concerns.

I am not photographing the residents as specific, identifiable individuals, but as representations of humankind. In fact, I take great care in not revealing their identity; the strength of the imagery comes from us seeing ourselves in the anonymous figures of "The Neighbors."

In New York, people are masters of being both the observer and the observed. We live so densely packed that contact is inevitable -- even our homes are stacked facing each other. It is no wonder that street photography was born in this city, and some of the best subjects and most famous works are the results of those who didn't know they were being photographed or painted.

"Neighbors" has sparked a good bit of conversation. While people differ in their opinions -- as most do when it comes to art -- I believe the images speak for themselves. I encourage everyone to draw their own conclusions after seeing the work.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arne Svenson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:30 AM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT