ARNE SVENSON: The Workersby Sara Christoph
JULIE SAUL GALLERY | APRIL 9 – MAY 30, 2015
Photographer Arne Svenson has garnered much notoriety as of late. The infamy began in 2013, when Svenson was lampooned in the Tribeca Citizen by his neighbors, appalled that he would secretly photograph them within their glass houses (The Neighbors, 2012). He went to court twice to protect his actions as fine art; twice the court ruled in his favor. (“Peeping Photographer Wins” the New York Post announced this past April, in spite of the judge’s description of the artist as “invasive” and “disturbing.”) Svenson’s most recent body of work, The Workers (2014), continues within this voyeuristic vein, photographing the physical laborers of New York City. Employing the same type of telephoto lens, here we encounter the profiles of men behind scaffolding, poised in delicate postures that conjure a serene Dutch interior more than a raucous site of jackhammers and cranes.
In The Workers, a collection of 14 photographs at Julie Saul Gallery, it is impossible to discern an individual face; we are given only hands, elbows, and stubble-ridden necks. In one image a silhouetted figure in a baseball cap glows from behind a wrinkled, translucent tarp. In another, closely cropped lips blow dust off a single razor blade. Unlike The Neighbors, which Svenson photographed from the confines of his studio on Greenwich Street, the workers here are in the public sphere, but remain strikingly anonymous—in both the literal and political sense of the term.
Svenson’s pursuit of each person’s anonymity is intentional and formalistic. In “Workers #24” (2014), a broad-shouldered figure leans forward as if preparing to kneel, the top of his head covered by a white bandana. His nose is clamped by a crisp white breathing mask, and a storm of dust further clouds the frame. With so many armaments of the construction site between us, we cannot see his skin nor guess his age, effectively muting his identity. Subjects are never given names, and as straight documentary is not his intention, Svenson likely doesn’t ask.
The images are portraiture in reverse: heads always turned, specificity removed for the sake of the symbolic. The artist has used such formal play in the past; an earlier series entitled Strays (2012) posed kittens against studio backdrops, always looking (adorably) away from the camera. Despite these tricks, his visual vocabulary remains deeply rooted in the history of studio portraiture and the use of emblematic props, though in The Workers, the few details provided do not reveal any identifying factors—aside from collective employment. To reduce individuals to their vocation feels cold and limiting, but perhaps that is part of the artist’s calculations.
Rather than imposing a conversation around the work’s merit as social documentary (his practice doesn’t seem to have much in common with Dorothea Lange or Sabastiao Salgado, two of the many photographers who have explored the subject of the worker), the series seems more at home in the iconography of traditional history painting, when a single body could stand as a distillation of a culture’s political and social values. His selection of allegorical titles—Strays, The Neighbors, The Workers—speaks to his desire to elevate the mundane into the universal, placing him in line with Millet or Courbet. Yet unlike these 19th-century painters whose gestures encapsulated a political act, Svenson has largely erased all markers of space and time—leaving one with a sense of nostalgia. Such historical yearning is heightened by each photograph’s crop into an ovular shape, as if taken in the early days of photography to fit within a locket. In a world of rectangular screens this shape is distinctive, yet the result is yet another imposition of distance. Svenson’s workers—though sensitively isolated—appear further extricated from the environment in which they labor and the world in which they live.
Sara Christoph is a former Managing Director of the Brooklyn Rail.