Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Quiet time in Riverside Park. 4:45 PM. Photo: Jeffrey Hirsch.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013. Very warm for May (mid-80s) and sunny in New York. The first real weather that reminds of summer, with the weatherman warning that the storm systems that created the violent tornados in the West and Midwest, moving East ... sans the tornados (or so it is predicted) on Thursday.

Privacy. In this week’s New Yorker in their “Talk of the Town” section, there is a piece by Raffi Khatchadokurian on a photographic exhibition at the Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea by photographer Arne Svenson. Mr. Svenson was given a Nikon telephoto lens by a bird-watching friend a few years ago, and in his effort to learn how to use it, he began taking photos of people in the building across the street from him. Soon it became an obsession. Svenson likened the experience to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” with Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly  (and Raymond Burr as the villain). Anyone who has ever seen the film, will never forget it.

Photographer Svenson ended up taking thousands of pictures of people – men, women, children, dogs in all kinds of private domestic situations. “Only the dogs” noticed him, he recalls.

From Arne Svenson's The Neighbors.
After the exhibition was installed, it was written up in the Tribeca Citizen. Some of Mr. Svenson’s neighbors (and subjects), having heard about it through the article, were very upset (I’ll bet).

As you can see, Mr. Svenson’s images are interesting and none seem intrusive or voyeuristic in context. One group, according to the article, are considering some kind of legal action.

Frequent readers of the NYSD know that I have a terrace from which I often take pictures of the neighborhood – mainly the street and the corners, but sometimes of the apartment buildings across the way.  I do this in an effort to catch the weather and the moment in any particular day, to indicate something about the mood of the city at that moment.

I have always been conscious of the fact neighbors who might see me with my camera could think I was doing the same sort of thing that Mr. Svenson was doing – taking pictures. As it happens, I’m not. To me it’s an invasion of privacy.

Occasionally in looking around, I will see someone at their window or near it, but I ignore it and move on. Of course if there were a scene I might glimpse of that looks violent or dangerous, I’d stop and consider what to do, like call 911. That has never happened.

There are times, I’ve noticed, when people do leave their shades up and their lights on and are lying on their beds half-undressed and  reading. This surprises me because I wouldn’t do that personally. I draw my blinds first if I think people can see me and I don’t want them to. But you could assume they want to be “watched.”

In the earlier part of an evening, I may have my blinds up and the lights on so that I could be seen walking around. Someone might notice although it doesn’t bother me because there is nothing intimate or private involved. I keep my blinds up during the day to let in the light. That same light somehow blackens one’s windows on the outside -- or so it seems with the buildings across from me, and therefore  it must be so for me.
Photo: JH
I have noticed in New York over the years that there are some people, maybe many, who pretty much don’t care if or what people see of them. Many may even “let it all hang out” because the idea of being watched amuses or turns them on. The exhibitionist. I don’t like the idea of intruding on someone’s advanced state of undress or their pursuit of some kind of personal sexual indemnification. I am not alone with that thought but many other potential spectators enjoy it.

I have friends who keep telescopes in their apartments so they can “watch” whatever. “Rear Window” comes to mind then. What care they about someone’s privacy (save their own)? Obviously, nada.

I do watch people on the street, however. I watch them with each other, with children, and with animals. I’m looking to learn and to see if everyone is safe and okay. Their movements or patterns lead me to imagine what their personalities are like; what they are like with each other, and yes, what they might be like in their apartments behind closed doors (and drawn shades). That however is not an invasion of privacy but a view into the society we live in.
Photo: JH
Many years ago, my oldest childhood friend studied astrology on the side when he was in college. This was back in the late 60s, early 70s. He’d often talk about the wonder of his discoveries about “the future.” One of his most incredible observations taken from the zodiacal activity of the world was that by the 1990s, early 2000s, there would be No Privacy in our world because of technology. The idea seemed absurd at the time. Not only absurd but impossible.

But this was before the cell phone or the computer. Now we are living with that reality. At times it is very disturbing. For example, I get a lot of spam daily selling all kinds of services, products and resorts, and generally scamming for cash (check or money order).  All suggestions that can lead to instantly hijacking one’s privacy – financial and/or otherwise.

A popular message is the person from a foreign land who is “dying of (some kind of) cancer” and has no one to leave it to except me. These messages usually start out with something like “Dear Beloved Child of God,” or an officious sounding solicitor in some foreign land informing me that a long lost (and totally unknown) relative has kicked the bucket with no other heirs, but me. And it ends with a figure, like $40,000,000 which is about to be transferred to your bank account if you’ll just respond to this person’s dying wish or the lawyer’s instructions. I’ve never followed through so I don’t know where it leads but I’m sure it has a price tag on it.
Photo: JH
Lately I’ve been inundated with messages about my “credit” rating or about my public/private reputation. Always bad news, according to the sender. The credit one – which sometimes comes in duplicate and triplicate messages with different senders’ names – tells me my credit rating has just dropped three points and I’d better do something quick to fix it. The public reputation one comes with a message like: “Some outrageous and terrible things are being published about you on the internet; click to find out “What.”

Delete delete delete is my response. I don’t care what my credit rating is as I fortunately pay my bills on time and don’t have debt (thankfully). Nor do I care what is being written about me because true or false, I can’t do anything about it anyway. Furthermore whatever “it” might be couldn’t be all that shocking or outrageous as I spend my waking hours working, reading, or getting ready to go out for more work and more reading.
Photo: JH
All of these devices are designed to encourage others to intrude on one’s privacy. The credit and reputation stuff comes in sometimes by the dozen daily – all from different “sources.” Clearly they are looking for something ($$$) that can determine the sender’s future and not mine.

Also in this New World of ours people are intruding on their own privacy by freely sharing what they are doing or what the guy at the next table is doing, from moment to moment via Twitter, text, or video. So, not only has privacy been dispensed with in the life among the savages (us) but it is being surrendered purposely, always with some notion of a better future (i.e., more money) for the vanquished.

And so it would seem, that in the scheme of things which lay before us, Mr. Svenson’s photograph of the neighbor snoozing on his couch half undressed is about as unusual as the litter barrels that are conveniently placed on every street corner to catch all our daily detritus. Or maybe just art of the technological age, the shutters’ version of Edward Hopper’s subject.
From Arne Svenson's The Neighbors.

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