Published in Art in America, May 2013
Over the past 20 years, New York-based photographer Arne Svenson has produced numerous series, among them images of convicted criminals printed from turn-of-the-century glass plate negatives (“Prisoners,” 1997) and portraits of children with autism (“About Face,” 2011). In his most recent series, “The Neighbors” (2012), Svenson turned a telephoto lens on the residents of the modernist steel-and-glass building directly across the street from his Tribeca loft.
Unaware of being observed, Svenson’s subjects are revealed in private moments, caught in the act and tasks of living, although they are usually facing away from the camera, their forms truncated and partially obscured by their surroundings. Meticulously crafted and composed, his photographs raise voyeurism to the level of high art as well as imbuing it with a large dose of humanism. The people are portrayed with extreme tenderness as they go about their fishbowl existence. Svenson collapses the distance between the viewer and his subjects in such a way as to make the spectator feel that he or she not only knows these people, but might actually be them.
The viewer’s identification with Svenson’s “neighbors” is reinforced by the fact that the portions of the figures that appear in the photographs are at near-life-size; because the prints are not very large (most measure 45 by 30 inches), intimacy is fostered. The point of view is essentially one of hovering mid-air just outside the window, which is coincident with the image’s foreground plane. In many, the rails and stiles holding the glass panes are so vivid that they seem like three-dimensional elements superimposed upon the surface. These metallic bars subdivide the pictorial field and play an important role in the ordered geometry and elaborate framing (the frames within frames) that characterize the works as a whole. Elements of the building’s Mondrian-esque fenestration and design operate in tandem with curtains, blinds and furniture to parallel the edges of the photographs. This lends structure to the prints and concentrates focus on subtle human drama—for example, a pregnant woman in profile isolated in the two left quadrants of The Neighbors #8, and a woman with a large pair of scissors glimpsed through an open blind in The Neighbors #3.
As they present formally controlled (and seemingly staged) images with narrative potential, the numbered prints often suggest movie stills. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Rear Window (1954) inescapably comes to mind, even though the photographs do not offer action or suspense. The works find precedents in the paintings of Edward Hopper or Dutch 17th-century genre pictures. In The Neighbors #14, a woman seen in profile wearing a towel on her head sits on a bed looking at her cellphone by lamplight; her solitude, the subtle gradations of light, the soft golden tones and the curtained window all recall Vermeer’s Girl Reading A Letter by an Open Window (1657-59). A debt to Dutch painting is also felt in The Neighbors #2, in which a woman in a white raincoat stands erect behind a twisted gold curtain. The Neighbors #12 elicits a different art historical reference; a child tumbling sideways in her caregiver’s arms suggests a putto in a baroque altarpiece. With the sensitivity and humility we’ve come to expect from this artist, Svenson provides humanist icons for a secular world. (The exhibition will be at Julie Saul Gallery, New York, May 9-June 29.)