Artist’s right to secretly snap neighbours upheld in New York (Wired UK)


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A landmark ruling in New York Citys Supreme Court has upheld the rights of a photographer to exhibit and sell a series of photographs he took of his neighbours without their consent. The ruling marks a new chapter in the fiercely waged debate around the boundaries of privacy.

A panel of seven judges unanimously ruled in favour of Arne Svenson’s series The Neighbours, first exhibited in 2013, citing the First Amendment to the constitution of the United States, and its protection of artistic freedom.

In their decision, the judges said: “Concerns over privacy and the loss thereof have plagued the public for over 100 years” but added “the invasion of privacy of one’s home that took place here is not actionable… because the defendant’s use of the images in question constituted art work.”

The court nonetheless appeared troubled about its conclusion, calling Svensons images “disturbing” and urging the local government to update existing laws. Judge Renwick wrote: “Many people would be rightfully offended by the intrusive manner in which the photographs were taken. In these times of heightened threats to privacy posed by new and every more invasive technologies, we call upon the Legislature to revisit this important issue as we are constrained to apply the law at it exists.”

Svenson’s photographs captured the residents of a seven-storey apartment building in New York’s Tribeca district going about their everyday lives: taking naps, watching television, cleaning and eating breakfast. Svenson took thousands of photos of his subjects, whose faces are mostly hidden, using a telephoto lens, over a 12-month period.

The photographer’s neighbours were oblivious to Svenson’s project until the series was exhibited at the city’s Julie Saul Gallery in 2013. Two residents of the building, Matthew and Martha Foster, filed a lawsuit against the photographer after they saw a picture of their young children in a local newspaper article about the exhibition.

However, the Supreme Court backed a lower court’s decision to dismiss the case, ruling that Svenson’s rights as an artist — backed by the First Amendment — outweighed the family’s rights in a city as densely populated as New York.

Svenson has cited Hitchcock’s voyeuristic thriller Rear Window as an inspiration on his work. In an interview with photography blog PetaPixel, Svenson said of the photographs: “I shot for the tiny nuances of gesture and posture that define who we are, collectively. The subjects are to be seen as representations of humankind, non-identifiable as the actual people photographed.”

In the wake of the controversy, The Neighbours has gained national exposure, with the exhibition set to open at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver in 2016 and one of the images now housed in Harvard Business School’s collection. It appears that the furore around his work hasn’t deterred Svenson from his pursuit of ‘photo-realism’: his latest exhibition, The Workers, features close-ups of manual labourers at work in the city.

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10 April 2015 | 2:09 pm – Source: wired.co.uk

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