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Gail Albert Halaban is a New York-based photographer whose work challenges the boundaries between what is considered public and private and explores how identity is perceived and portrayed. In her latest book, Out My Window (powerHouse Books, 2012), Halaban indulges an age-old furtive impulse, familiar to many city dwellers, to spy into the windows of one’s neighbors. The cityscape of New York serves as backdrop and frame for brightly-illuminated vignettes of everyday activities in private spaces, scenes staged for the purposes of these photographs. Halaban’s work evokes questions about anonymity and connection, about the false familiarity that arises between strangers who know one another solely by sight — through windows, on subway platforms during daily commutes, or in passing at corner delis — and the assumptions and imagined stories we, as watchers, conjure up. Here, Halaban shares a selection of images from Out My Window and discusses both the inspiration for and some of the unexpected outcomes of the project.
With the ongoing series Out My Window (2007-2012), I have been addressing the potential estrangement of dense urban living. Surveying the views from scores of New Yorkers’ windows, I try to capture both the intimacy and remoteness of residing in the proximity of so many strangers.
Taking my inspiration from the Ashcan School of painters’ devotion to portraying the gritty scenes of daily urban life, the series builds off a Rear Window-like fascination with the fleeting moments of private lives glimpsed through the apertures of one’s home. Peering into the households of a broad swath of the population, the pictures offer a series of reciprocal views and shared spaces. These photographs narrate a range of worries and desires through small gestures, habits, and minor events – all cropped by the window frame, and again by the photographic frame.
Living in New York, one concedes an implicit contract with our many anonymous neighbors: We are all to an extent on display to each other, but we pretend not to notice, and do not to attempt to bridge the narrow spatial but chasm-like psychological gaps between buildings. Such alienation from the broader community is not new. And yet this condition seems exacerbated by a world in which groceries ordered online are delivered to your door and romantic relationships are initiated through Internet profiles. One no longer need become friendly with those specialist vendors that once structured the rhythms of urban life nor hazard the terrifying and exhilarating experience of making eye contact and striking up a conversation with a stranger. We perhaps seem farther apart than ever before.
In the end, the process of producing this series of images is a kind of performance that serves as a remedy for the symptoms that they portray: By ringing on doorbells, I have helped bring anonymous neighbors into each other’s lives, providing the opportunity for them to throw back the veil of anonymity that had characterized their passing encounters. The set-up of my camera and the staging of the resultant photograph become an occasion for new friendships.
All images from Out My Window by Gail Albert Halaban, published by powerHouse Books.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.