When Arne Svenson’s exhibition “The Neighbors” opened at Julie Saul Gallery New York in 2013, it was met with public outrage, followed by legal action. The artist had been taking pictures of New York residents inside their lower Manhattan apartments with a telephoto lens to create a body of work; several of Svenson’s subjects seen in the photographs filed a lawsuit against the photographer.
The subjects of the artist’s works later accepted that Svenson’s photography was indeed art. However the plaintiffs alleged that the photos constituted a violation of their statutory right to privacy, the Hollywood Reporter stated, and the subjects sought to prohibit the display and sale of photographs taken without permission.
Now the US Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the photographer, bringing with it disturbing news for privacy advocates. However, conceding that Svenson’s work is in fact art is what won the case for him, as the judges’ verdict to allow the photographs was based on Svenson’s First Amendment rights as an artist.
However the seven-judge panel also referred to the photographs as “disturbing” and challenged local government to revise New York privacy laws, the Art Newspaper reports. While New York laws prohibit the “non-consensual use of a person’s name, portrait or picture for advertising or trade purposes,” the laws also allow for an exception in this law for news media and “matters of public concern.”
Justice Dianne Renwick explained that the appeals court’s definition of press media is broad: “Under this exemption, the press is given broad leeway,” – the value of artistic ideas conveyed in an artwork have been regarded by the supreme court as a matter of public interest. “In our view, artistic expression in the form of art work must therefore be given the same leeway extended to the press under the newsworthy and public concern exemption to the statutory tort of invasion of privacy,” Renwick concluded.
However some of the images werte not of adults but instead show young children, an example being the work described as “little girl, dancing in her tiara; half naked.” Martha and Matthew Foster, found pictures of their children reproduced in the media, and subseuently sued the photographer.
According to the New Yorker, the artist consulted with a solicitor and reportedly watched Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘Rear Window’ for inspiration several times before “spying” on his neighbours by taking many thousands of photographs of their activities. The photographic series shows New York residents going about their everyday business: whether at the breakfast table, doing household chores, or lounging on furniture.