Supreme Court Rules Photographing Neighbors Through Windows is Legal

Supreme Court Rules Photographing Neighbors Through Windows is Legal

Is it art? It's an age-old question, but as the centuries pass and technology continues to flourish, the question only seems to get harder to answer. The New York State Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of photographer Arne Svenson who was brought to court by a family who he had photographed in their Tribeca apartment without consent.

This may remind some of you of the story we published back in 2012 about the French photographer who had a lens powerful enough to capture Princess Kate sunbathing topless from what seemed like miles away. The Royal family pressed charges against the French gossip magazine, "Closer," who published the photos. A spokesperson for the Royal family stated that they were "hugely saddened" by the invasion of privacy and that "the incident is reminiscent of the worst excesses of the press and paparazzi during the life of Diana." The Royal family won the legal battle in the French court, but the Tribeca family that was the subject of Arne Svenson's "The Neighbors" exposition was not so lucky. 

Svenson, represented by Julie Saul Gallery in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood and Western Project in Los Angeles, debuted "The Neighbors" at the Julie Saul Gallery in 2013 to immediate public outrage. Martha and Matthew Foster, being among the most outraged, led Svenson into a lawsuit when they discovered that photos of their toddler-aged childen were among those featured in the exhibition, calling it a "technological home invasion." 

The critically acclaimed artist reportedly spent countless hours pacing his darkened apartment for the families to be within view of his telephoto lens to capture simple moments of their everyday lives, without showing their faces or identifying them. The first trial ruled in favor of the lensman and the case was appealed and brought before the New York State Supreme Court who have now deemed that Svenson's work fell "within the ambit of constitutionally protected conduct in the form of a work of art" and that he was therefore protected under the First Amendment with his rights of an artist.

The Fosters, residents of the seven-story glass "Zinc Building" in lower Manhattan that's easily viewed from the street, claimed Svenson is nothing more than a peeping tom. Svenson's lawyer Nancy Wolff said the Fosters' "expectation of privacy was perhaps reduced when they chose to live with floor-to-ceiling windows and not draw the curtains in a city where we take a certain level of intrusion for granted." Wolff added that "[T]he photos are meant to speak to the anonymity of life in New York" and "[T]here was nothing personally identifiable in the photos, or sexual, and no one would have known it was the Foster's children if they had not filed suit and chosen not to request to proceed anonymously."

In other words: buy curtains.

What do you all think? Were the photographs an invasion of privacy? And what if Svenson had used photographs that included their faces? Would that change your opinion?

To read the court case in full, you can find it here in the New York Law Journal.

Photos courtesy of the Julie Saul Gallery.

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Ah...that was the NEW YORK State Supreme court not the US Supreme court. And I believe that in NY the Supreme courts are the lower courts--circuit courts. The judge said that the New York legislature needs to rewrite the applicable law but his hands were tied by the way it is currently written. So blame this on the law makers not the judiciary.

Thanks, this has been fixed

Lee - please fix the headline too. Otherwise, this is really misleading. Just lead with an NY...Please and thank you.

Yes shoddy writing by the author of the story. Please get your facts straight. Story is already a week old and it was a New York Supreme court which is a lower court in most states and not the United States Supreme Court.

in other news: just about any photo can end up in a gallery.

Slight clarification to amend what the previous comments said: This was a decision of the Appellate Division, First Department, of the New York State Supreme Court. That is the appeals court from the trial court (equivalent to the US Courts of Appeals for the various circuits). It can be further appealed to the NY Court of Appeals, which is NY's highest court. But the prior comments are correct: this decision in no way involved in the US Supreme Court, or any federal court.

As a travel photographer working genuinely to promote places and bring them business, but often getting problems with 'private property', I feel that this photographer is working against me. He gives photographers a bad rep, and for what? Questionable art...

Since art is in the eye of the beholder, it might be better to say controversial art. Svenson is an artist photographer not a travel photographer. The laws in the US regarding private property can be generally pretty murky, but for the most part: 'Photography may be prohibited or restricted within an area of property by the property owner. At the same time, a property owner generally cannot restrict the photographing of the property by individuals who are not located within the bounds of the property.' Clearly he was shooting from his own apartment outside the private property boundary.

I wasn't calling Svenson a travel photographer, I was saying that projects like this questionable one, make it harder for photographers with "call it purer" intentions.

This kind of work fuels policy makers to make ever more rigid privacy laws.

His overall body of work is pretty damn cool, and if nothing else the fact that he gets his horizontal and vertical lines straight really makes the collection greater than the sum of its parts when you see them in a gallery setting.

...i don't do windows ;)

...but photograph cops in action and you can get arrested and/or your ass kicked...

I personally think the courts are wrong. This is FAAAAAAAR from Art. It's a direct violation of privacy. When I have to close my shades so strangers in the street don't take my picture without my permission, I do not perceive that as Art. I perceive that as Voyeurism; which is creepy.

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