“Voyeurism implies that you’re going to look at somebody and not acknowledge the exchange. To me, with this work, you’re acknowledging that there’s actually a two-way relationship.”
Inspired by time spent as a temporary shut-in following the birth of her daughter, photographer Gail Albert Halaban began shooting pictures of her neighbors (with their permission) through the windows of her Manhattan apartment. The exercise soon became her means of connecting to the outside world, an escape from the exile of diaper changes and sleep deprivation. The artful result, Out My Window, a photo series showcasing city dwellers at their most unguarded, caught the eye of Cathy Remy, an editor from French newspaper Le Monde’s M magazine, who subsequently commissioned Halaban for a Paris-focused spread. After the assignment the photographer was inspired to continue shooting the city and temporarily expatriated, gathering much of the material for her book Paris Views (published in October 2014 by Aperture).
Each of Halaban’s images transforms the ordinary and the routine (like the image of a young girl practicing the clarinet, or a lone woman scolding her dogs) into an intriguing world with unspoken backstories. One of the series’ greatest strengths is its ability to confirm aesthetic Parisian tropes—elegantly decaying buildings, climbing-ivy windowsill gardens, and seemingly neverending glasses of merlot—while displaying the reality-bathed day-to-day life of one of the most romanticized cities in history. The result is unretouched and full exposure—unmade beds and all.
While though Halaban’s Manhattan subjects proved exceedingly easy to win over (“From the over 200 people I asked to take part in the New York project only one said no,” she told Ruins), she came up against a few roadblocks with their French counterparts. “In Paris no one wants to admit that they do it [spy on their neighbors]. They are much more private, so at first it was very hard. Some of the initial people I asked said, ‘That must be illegal’, or ‘Nobody is going to do that here.’” However, the photographer’s exposure in Le Monde, coupled with her engaging personality, put potential subjects at ease and elevated her status from peeping tom to esteemed artist.
Halaban may have executed this project with the impersonal gaze of a surgeon (a tad ironic as she originally attended Brown University for pre-med), but she still managed to infuse her work with warmth and compassion, making it feel more akin to a visit from a family friend than a still from Rear Window. “I became a photographer because I’m interested in people, and really wanted to get to know and connect with them,” she says.“My first job out of college was in a pediatric psychiatric hospital. Part of my role was to film kids and their families, and code for certain behaviors and actions for signs of mental illness. I began to realize that there were certain gestures and subtle ways people interact that tell you so much about who they are. I loved that job and how I connected with the families—that has been much of the motivation for my photographic work.” After swapping med school for an MFA from Yale, Halaban went on to study with downtown docu-photographer Nan Goldin, whose intimate and occasionally tragic portrait studies are echoed through her protégé’s work.
While Halaban is essentially inviting the public to peer into someone’s private life, she insists her art is the farthest thing from voyeurism. “Voyeurism implies that you’re going to look at somebody and not acknowledge the exchange. To me, with this work, you’re acknowledging that there’s actually a two-way relationship.”