Arne Svenson’s The Neighbors book cover
There has been much discussion in the past few years about what constitutes a street photograph. Some in the genre have tried to make a living out of defining a street photograph while others, like myself, have worked at deconstructing those rules. Here, in this review, I want to look at one book in particular, which acts as a good case study in pushing the definition of street photography – Arne Svenson’s The Neighbors.
In The Neighbors, Svenson provides us with an extensive collection of candid photographs of his neighbors taken through the expansive glass windows of their Manhattan condos. But are these photographs street photographs? Yes, I would argue that indeed they are street photos. They are candid images and they were made (so the Supreme Court of New York ruled) from a public space. And, maybe the candid element isn’t even imperative, I’m thinking about some of Arbus’s work, or Maier’s iconic images. Perhaps all we need for a street photograph is l’espace public. Let us leave this debate here, for it is not our primary concern in these pages. I want, rather, to discuss Svenson’s book and what it might bring to the table in our genre, should we see fit to admit it.
Credit Arne Svenson
For a long time, less so now, street photography suffered from the “Gilden syndrome”. Everyone professing themselves to be a street photographer was making, essentially, the same photographs – up close, grotesque, candids of strangers on urban sidewalks. I too am guilty of this crime. Okay, perhaps not a crime (not in New York anyway) but not exactly a novel approach to making good photographic art. What this trend did produce, however, is a lot of monotonous and unoriginal “street photography”. We need to push the envelope a little, so to speak. Enter Arne Svenson. Svenson is not a street photographer. He’s a portraiture-based book photographer – a fine art guy, for lack of a better term. Yet, in this collection, Svenson offers those of us in street photography a lot of food for thought. Every time I look at The Neighbors I want to give up photography entirely. The work is so inspiring, elegant, and timeless that it seems hopeless to even try and compete. However, if I were to go on, I would certainly be inspired by Svenson to push beyond the tired sidewalk-based one-offs that gave birth to my reputation as a street photographer. So much more is possible and this book is a testament to that claim.
Credit: Arne Svenson
Although Svenson may not be a street photographer, per se, he has done a lot of trailblazing for those of us who are. This book, for example, was the subject of a lawsuit brought on by plaintiffs who resided in the building Svenson photographed. The case made it’s way to the New York Supreme Court and the ruling was in Svenson’s (our) favor. This lawsuit helped to reinforce the 1st amendment right to produce artworks from materials in the public domain. The ruling helped expand the definitions of public domain to include things visible from the street. The ruling also reinforced previous rulings that have permitted this kind of “photography sans consent” provided that it is not used for “advertising or trade purposes”. Before becoming bogged down in legal arguments here, let us just say that those of us wielding a camera in public in New York owe a debt of gratitude to Arne Svenson for reinforcing our rights by legally testing those rights before the court. In this way, Svenson’s The Neighbors is a worthy contribution to the genre of street photography on multiple fronts, despite not being a book of “classical” street photography.
Credit: Arne Svenson
Should we all grab a tripod and aim our cameras at the neighbor’s window in our departure from the norms of street photography? No. To be clear, I’m not making any such claim. However, we should, just maybe, think about training our lenses more broadly – beyond the stranger’s face. Svenson’s The Neighbors is a great example of the potential benefits of doing just that. Is it street photography? Yes, I still think it is. You may disagree. We all have our opinions. What we might more easily agree on is that the work in this collection is not only beautiful and original, but it is also an opening to possibility.