Arne Svenson is at it again. The New York based photographer created a stir last spring with his series The Neighbors. Shot through the plate glass exteriors of apartment buildings at unsuspecting subjects caught in private moments and in various stages of undress, the show at Julie Saul Gallery became immediately controversial, sparking heated conversations about voyeurism, privacy, and exploitation.
With his project Strays, Svenson has set his sights on an even more vulnerable subject: kittens. A recent Feature Shoot article explains the thinking behind the project. "Was it possible," Svenson wondered, "to ignore those big entrancing eyes and find the kitten's inner life, his back-story? Did kittens even have back-stories?"
Svenson realized that the central issue was "how to photograph kittens in a way that would connect to the underlying theme of my work, which is to cast light on the unseen, the ignored and overlooked."
As with The Neighbors, the photographs required covert surveillance. If the kittens were aware of the photographer they would react. Something like a loose gear strap or a tumbling roll of gaffer's tape might tantalize them for hours. But Svenson was not looking for reactions. He wanted truth, dammit! This required removing himself entirely from the scene. From the seclusion of a neighboring building, unknown to the kittens, he watched them carefully and photographed choice moments using a 500 mm lens.
The resulting images, liberated from issues of cuddliness or cuteness, document a side of young cat life that viewers have rarely had access to before. From perky-eared inquisitiveness to the lofty arrogance so characteristic of felines, Svenson's photographs unabashedly show it all. They show back-story, tail, anus, hind legs and all. Never before has the inner life of cats been laid so bare, so achingly unguarded.
Like The Neighbors, Strays raises a host of questions regarding privacy, complicity, and surveillance. Can a kitten consent to be photographed? If so, did the kittens in this case grant permission? Would they even care, or are they generally more concerned with bits of string and chasing birds? Is the claim to privacy a basic feline right? What about when they venture into a neighboring cat's territory? And why do cats sleep all day? What's up with that?