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 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT