Artist Interview:
Gail Albert Halaban

Photographer Gail Albert Halaban (b. 1970) is renowned for her ongoing series Out My Window (2004-present). Here, she works with residents from neighbouring houses to recreate the scenes they glimpse of each other’s lives through the window. Moments from daily life are frozen and framed by cosy lighting, rectangular windowsills and intricate architecture. We see a guitarist practicing on the balcony, a man exercising on a stationary bike and ballet dancers practicing at the barre. It’s a unique way of building community. Some participants begin as strangers and develop lifelong bonds through the project. Gail Halaban’s latest exhibition at Jackson Fine Art is titled Neighbours in the Building. Here, she develops the theme of Out My Window by investigating the stories we make up about the people living around us. In this interview, the lens-based artist shares insights into the cultural differences she’s observed between locations, the inspiration behind her latest project and the story behind her shot of The Dorilton.

A: Your series Out My Window speaks to our desire for connection. Could you tell us about how this project came about?
GAH: I wanted to find a way to connect people through a unique series of photographs, which is why with full consent and collaboration, I’ve been able to light, stage, direct and photograph these pictures around the world for the past 20 years. This project began in 2004, when I moved to New York from Los Angeles, shortly after my daughter Zoe was born. As a new mom, I spent many sleepless nights looking out the window onto our new block. I learned pretty quickly how unusual ours was: the street is filled with wholesale flower shops that open early, usually 4am, and supply the flower industry across the city. During Zoe’s first birthday, the flower shop directly opposite our building sent us flowers and balloons, along with a note that said: “Wishing your daughter a happy birthday — it has been fun watching her grow up.”

A: How did you feel about this?
GAH: I was a little conflicted by the gesture at first, because whilst I was grateful for how kind and thoughtful it was, it also felt intrusive. We’d never met the owners, but clearly they’d seen us through our window and had been keeping an eye on us. Ultimately, I was more curious than anything to learn more — was this just a New York thing, people staring into their neighbours’ windows? I began to investigate by asking everyone I knew about what they saw in their neighbours’ windows — if they too had people they liked to keep an eye on — and the project took off from there.

A: The series has been ongoing for over a decade. How has it evolved over time?
GAH: It’s evolved in many ways over the years, the rise of social media being one key change. When I started, Instagram and Facebook didn’t exist, so all my recruiting was done the old-fashioned way. I used a phone book to cold call people who lived across the window from people I knew, leaving them voicemails. And they called me back! Which seems incredible now, granted the amount of robo calls and people who are just unwilling to answer calls from strangers.

It’s been a bit of a double-edged sword: on one hand, Facebook and Instagram have been helpful in spreading the word about my work and allowing me to connect with people in other countries to stage photos. On the other hand, it’s also made people more hesitant to respond to messages from a stranger— a lot of the in-between work of this project is building trust in communities to make something beautiful. For those who do participate, I’m truly so grateful and lucky. As the project has grown and more people reach out expressing how excited they are to be a part of it, that feels so much larger than the initial fearfulness of engaging with a stranger.

Another thing I’ve noticed with the work going on for so long is the subtle ways we continue to disconnect from our neighbours — instead of going to the store to grab an avocado for dinner, now we order it online. This still stuns me a little because I remember first moving to NYC and meeting the same delivery guy each week as he delivered my seltzer bottles and picked up the empty ones. Now, a Fresh Direct truck delivers my ironically named “Vintage” brand plastic bottles each week. These shifts remind me that, now more than ever, we need to consciously make an effort to acknowledge and connect with the people who surround us— even if those people and where we meet them look different than they used to. The project continues to deepen its meaning and impact the longer it goes on.

A: You’ve conducted this project across numerous cities, including Rome, Paris and Amsterdam. How have people responded from place to place?
GAH: Each city is different because of its culture and architecture. Some cultures are naturally more open to strangers in their homes; similarly, some architecture is designed to facilitate more or less privacy between neighbours. In Rome, neighbours often know each other since the neighbourhoods tend to be really friendly — and if they don’t, they’re totally open to meeting and even having dinner together right after. In Paris, it’s been a little more subdued. At first, most people told me they don’t watch their neighbours, but as the project got more popular through press and social media — becoming chic, so to speak – they were more willing to participate. Parisians generally seem to be private, but, when a project is cool and creative, there’s a greater willingness to let their guard down. After a glass of wine, people love to tell me stories about what they’ve imagined about their neighbours! Amsterdam, too, has this interesting duality of privacy and openness: everyone freely acknowledges that they see and watch their neighbours, but, also, they’re pretty adamant about not sharing any gossip. Across all the places I’ve worked, I’ve found that in each city, it’s really the people who invite me who set the stage for a successful shoot. They serve as ambassadors and share the goodwill of the friendships that they have built.

A: Neighbours in the Building explores the fantasies we project onto our neighbours and the lives we imagine they might lead. What prompted you to explore these projections?
GAH: New Yorkers — from Edward Hopper, to Hitchcock, to Seinfeld — have a long tradition of making up stories about their neighbours. I’m also making art that tells stories, but the tone of my work is a little different, because I’m a friendly window-watcher. I don’t see the world as lonely like Hopper, I don’t imagine murders like Hitchock, and I don’t watch the neighbours in order to use their odd habits for comedy, like Seinfeld.

Instead, I imagine the best versions of the people across the way. My new pictures are love letters to the people around me. The last show I did was before the pandemic, and the past few years have reinforced the belief that there’s so much pleasure in the company of the neighbour across the window space. They fulfil all my fantasies about the perfect friend or the perfect relationship — I never argue with them about the socks on the floor; I imagine being invited to their amazing dinner party or having a long conversation about the book on their nightstand whilst we sit by the fire. If I see something I don’t like, I can simply close the shades.

A: Alongside the photographs, Neighbours in the Building includes recorded stories that you wrote, inspired by what participants told you. Why did you choose to include these?
GAH: I loved this component of the series because I was able to include both real life anecdotes and parts I fictionalised. Using what neighbours told me as a jumping off point, I continued to evolve those stories with my own ideas.

A: What role does architecture play in your photography?
GAH: The architecture sets the stage for my pictures. Buildings, homes and everything in between are the set design for the grand operas I create.

A: A lot of the shots are packed with details, from intricate architecture to layers of skyscrapers in the background. Nevertheless, our eyes are drawn to the window frames. How do you direct your viewer’s gaze? What is your approach to composition?
GAH: A photographer’s greatest tool is light — it creates drama and directs the viewer’s gaze. I hope that when a viewer sees my work printed to a large scale (50×60 inches) — they’ll be able to really take in the intricate details of the architecture and the city. In smaller formats, like a book or a website, the windows become the primary focus due to scale, but I love that the pictures read so differently in each format.

A: Red Dress, Dorilton, Upper West Side, New York (2023) shows a truly grand building. Elaborate architectural details and sumptuous curtains frame the central figure, who catches the eye in a scarlet gown. Could you tell us a bit more about about this piece? Why did you choose this building
GAH: The Dorilton is particularly special to me — it’s one block from where my grandparents’ office used to be, which is now, of all things, a Trader Joe’s. My grandparents owned an employment agency and staffed some of the most fabulous apartments in New York City, which definitely played into my imagination of their life in NYC being full of glitz and glamor.

When I first spent a lot of time in New York as a kid in the 1980s, The Dorilton had become completely derelict, though I could still see a certain elegance beneath it. When it later became a co-op, the years of neglect were stripped away, revealing a stage set for the lives of the characters I had imagined would live in New York City. The building, a few blocks from Lincoln Center, is now home to stars and performers who’ve sought out its extra thick walls, perfect for muting their practice sessions. When I look into the windows, I imagine I am watching an opera being performed.

A: How did you get the shot?
GAH: I tried for years to photograph The Dorilton, but the management for the building opposite was particularly uncooperative — they wouldn’t let me leave notes for the residents or even photograph out the window of a vacant apartment. It was so frustrating that they didn’t want to help, and also wildly funny, because the greatest sales pitch to live in the building opposite The Dorilton is the gorgeous views across the way — and the owner of that building is a well-known art collector! But the stalemate just made me even more determined to make this photograph.

Last year, my assistant had a brilliant idea: she happened to be dropping off her daughter’s dress at the tailor shop in the building and realised that, since she’d gained entry, she could leave notes for all the neighbours who faced The Dorilton. Three neighbours kindly responded immediately. We went and met them all – each one generous with their times and view – but none of these views was quite right. Then, one neighbour, Jake, volunteered to figure out the best angle for me! He is the world’s friendliest person and took it upon himself to meet all his neighbours and spread the word about the project. Eventually, we settled on photographing from Fran’s window. It was like kismet, because even though Fran lives on 71st Street across from The Dorilton, her office is actually right next to my apartment in Chelsea. The more time I spend on this project, the more I realise that each time I meet someone new, they’re rarely a complete stranger, since we nearly always have something in common.

A: What are you working on at the moment?
GAH: Not surprisingly, I recently met one of my own neighbours — Iqram Magdon-Ismail. Not only does he live two blocks from me, his office is nearby and we both attend the same pilates studio! We got chatting about how I’m evolving my storytelling. I’m collecting stories about what neighbours imagine about each other. At the same time, I’m asking viewers to tell me how they envisage the lives of the people in my pictures. Coincidentally, he has been developing a new digital platform called JellyJelly — where users can curate audio or text-based conversations — that works perfectly for my project.

When people use JellyJelly, not only will they be able to hear my audio stories, they will also be able to respond with their own. I am hoping to do two things with my New York City work: publish it as a monograph and create a public art piece. I’d love for viewers in any city I’ve photographed to tell me the stories they imagine happening in the windows of my pictures. I hope this will continue to fuel the idea that’s kept this project going for so long; photographs are interesting not only in and of themselves, but in the conversations they ignite. We all have the power to engage in dialogue with our neighbours. Ultimately, I hope to have an exhibition that travels to all the cities I have photographed thus far!

Jackson Fine Art, Gail Albert Halaban: Neighbors in the Building | Until 22 March

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh and Gail Albert Halaban

Image Credits:

  1. Gail Albert Halaban, Red Dress, Dorilton, Upper West Side, New York, 2023. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Jackson Fine Art.
  2. Gail Albert Halaban, Williamsburg Oval Park, Bronx, 2022. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Jackson Fine Art.
  3. Gail Albert Halaban, Hotel Albert, Greenwich Village, 2022.Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Jackson Fine Art.
  4. Gail Albert Halaban, Break the Fast, Yom Kippur, Upper East Side, 2023. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Jackson Fine Art.
  5. Gail Albert Halaban, Violin and Ping Pong, Chelsea, 2022. Copyright ofthe artist and courtesy of Jackson Fine Art.
  6. Gail Albert Halaban, Guitar, Upper West Side, 2022. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Jackson Fine Art.
  7. Gail Albert Halaban, Constable Building to the Gorham Building (topfloors), Union Square, 2022. Copyright of the artist and courtesy ofJackson Fine Art.