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Thursday September 08 2016

I’ve visited the top of the Tate Modern Extension several times in recent weeks, so this story particularly entertained me:

Tate Modern visitors accused of spying on Neo Bankside residents

Here’s the story:

Residents of the Rogers Stirk Harbour-designed Neo Bankside apartments have threatened legal action, after Tate Modern opened an observation deck that provides views into their private apartments.

The 360-degree rooftop viewing deck is one of the headline features of the Switch House – the 64.5-metre-high Tate Modern gallery extension by Herzog & de Meuron, which opened to the public in June.

But residents of the adjacent apartment complex have claimed that gallery visitors are using zoom-lens cameras and binoculars to peer inside their glass-walled homes and take photographs.

Having failed to reach a solution with Tate, the homeowners are now seeking legal action to regain their privacy.

I was particularly diverted by this bit:

So far the only change has been the addition of a sign asking Tate visitors to be more considerate.

Dezeen does not show any picture of this sign, but here, I can, because I photoed it several weeks ago:

image

I remember thinking at the time that this is almost contemptuously perfunctory.  I’m not surprised that it failed to subdue the snoopers

I believe that, as London gets more and more interesting, and full of more and more intriguing Big Things, there will be more and more such viewing platforms like this one at Tate Modern.  So, this problem of what you can see from such platforms that people don’t want you to see isn’t going to go away.

And the problem gets far worse when you consider that zoom lenses are only going to get ever more powerful.  I often joke here that my camera has better eyesight than I do, and it’s true.  But pretty soon, all cameras will have better eyesight than everyone.

It could be that about half of this particular viewing platform will be shut down, in which case, I need to make sure now that I have seen everything from that part of it that I can, before this happens.

I’d prefer the other idea, which is that these people living in glass houses should have one way mirrors installed, so they can see out but the rest of us can’t see in.  But then, expect the internet to be awash with before/after photos.

The binoculars and zoom lenses barely matter in this instance, I think. I went up there yesterday evening, and the residents of the apartment closest the same level as the viewing gallery were present and attempting to live a normal evening in their living room. Meanwhile, all the people in the viewing gallery were able to watch their every move. Zoom lenses and binoculars were pretty much irrelevant - the apartment is close enough to the viewing gallery that you can see their every move. An American standing next to me observed that it was like watching “an art installation”, which was vaguely amusing given that we were in an art gallery.

As for the signs asking you to “respect our neighbours privacy”, what does this mean, exactly? Don’t take photographs? Don’t look? Don’t draw the fact that the residents of the apartment are having sex on the sofa to the attention of other people in the viewing gallery? I don’t think I know, exactly.

One ways mirrors require the light level to be considerably lower in the private (in this case, inside) area compared to the public (outside) area. So they would work in the daytime if the lights were kept low in the apartment, but not in the evening and night when it is dark inside and you have your lights on. As the viewing gallery is open in the evening on Friday and Saturday nights (and it is dark in much of the day in summer), this is only a very partial solution. These apartments have been built for the view and their northern walls are pretty much made entirely out of glass for the purposes of the view north towards the river, so I can’t see what can be done, except rebuild the apartments in such a way as to remove their original reason for existing, or actually turn them into art installations.

(Or maybe turn the two or three worst affected appartments into business premises of some kind. You can imagine circumstances there where the lack of privacy becomes a feature.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 10 September 2016

Michael

Thanks.

I agree that the zoom lens thing doesn’t apply to this particular Tate Modern problem, but it will apply more and more to many other viewing platforms, already existing and built in the future.  Once the 300x zoom photos start appearing on the internet.

And when such photos can be seamlessly subjected to face-recognition, by anyone with a smartphone.  There’s already talk of a Shazam for people.  Shazam being (I hope I have it right) the one where you point your smartphone at some music and it immediately identifies it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 10 September 2016

The number of people who have 300x zoom lenses (or any zoom lenses at all) is a tiny portion of all photographers. This is simply because out of all photographers, virtually everyone is using a smartphone. And because smartphones are so thin, installing zoom lenses in them is hard. (Apple proudly announced a smartphone with a groundbreaking 2x optical zoom this week). So for voyeurs to do that Shazam for people thing, they are going to have to transfer the picture from their camera to their phone before doing that image processing, or do it on their PC at home.

And none of this is really new. Voyeurs and spies have been looking at people through windows with telescopes and telephoto lenses for a very long time. (Hitchcock made a movie about this in 1953). Super zoom lenses are fairly new (and newly cheap) but telephoto lenses with big focal lengths (ie lenses that magnify things a long way away but always magnify by the same amount) are not.

Yes, perhaps people using such things once stood out, but a strange thing about smartphone cameras getting better is that people using any other kind of camera are standing out more. So you might be a voyeur, but it may still be reasonably obvious to the people around you that you are. You personally are not typical, and you are becoming steadily less typical. (Also, London is a city full of people with cameras of all kinds. The world is full of places where you become the centre of attention simply by having a camera dangling around your neck. Another reason for using a smartphone camera is that you stand out much less. Everyone, everywhere, has a smartphone).

I’m not disagreeing with anything you are saying, really. The trend is in the direction you say it is. Eventually, smartphones will have cameras capable of doing something equivalent to a 300x optical zoom (probably by having an array of cameras side by side and doing clever mathematical things to combine and consequently enhance the images). However, people who really wanted to violate your privacy through an open window have been able to do so for decades. I don’t think anything happening right now is a qualitative change, though.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 10 September 2016

Michael

The one thing that does strike me as a bit new is the social media angle.  It’s one thing people photoing your front room, but something else again when they photo your front room and stick it on the internet.  This is the particular thing that these particular people are complaining about.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 11 September 2016
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