Review: Woman theme links engaging, diverse photos by Elliott Erwitt, Saul Leiter, Gail Albert-Halaban at Jackson Fine Art

Saul Leiter: Untitled, 106608, watercolor, casein, and gouache on silver gelatin print.
Saul Leiter: Untitled, 106608, watercolor, casein, and gouache on silver gelatin print.

Celebrating women may seem like an inexhaustible, albeit overused, theme for a photography exhibit. That has not prevented Jackson Fine Art from putting together an enticing proposition on the subject, featuring the work of three photographers, as different in their style as in their approach. Mini solo exhibitions of Elliott Erwitt, Saul Leiter and Gail Albert Halaban are on view through January 16, 2016.

Elliott Erwitt: Paris, France, 1962
Elliott Erwitt: Paris, France, 1962, silver gelatin print.

Regarding Women is based on Elliott Erwitt’s eponymous book, newly published by teNeues. As Charles Flowers notes in his introduction, “‘Regard’ means looking at, esteeming and thinking deeply about.” Obviously, Erwitt is somebody who has thought a great deal about women and, as a man with four ex-wives, four adult daughters and four grand-daughters, someone for whom women have played an important role

The gallery chose to exhibit 19 of the 369 images in his massive book. Some are classics, such as California Kiss and New York City (Woman with Empire State Building), both from 1955. But it has selected photographs that reveal Erwitt’s humor and sensibility, among them, Managua, Nicaragua (1957). Demonstrating his highly whimsical side, Erwitt captures the amused expression of two middle-aged women as they chat with a nudist seen from behind in Bakersfield, California (1983).

Worth noticing are the lesser known yet beautiful nudes, including the portrait of a young woman who emerges from a deep black background in Milan, Italy (1949).

Saul Leiter: Untitled, 106608, watercolor, casein, and gouache on silver gelatin print.
Saul Leiter: Untitled, 106608, watercolor, casein, and gouache on silver gelatin print.

Saul Leiter also photographed female nudes, but his treatment was radically different. The late artist, who moved to New York in 1946 to be a painter, made his career as a fashion photographer. His masterful use of color in his street photography gained recognition only later in life. From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, he experimented by painting watercolor, gouache or both over his silver gelatin photograph.

The photographs disappear almost completely in the process, as his bold and assertive brushstrokes dominate the narrative. Leiter’s use of vibrant colors (red, blue and yellow) intensifies the sensuality, if not necessarily the eroticism, of the scenes. The small scale typical of his photos forces you to get close to the work, making the viewing experience even more intimate. Leiter created hundreds of these intriguing, colorful hybrids pieces, 70 of which are now collected in a small book, Painted Nudes.

Gail Albert Halaban is a female photographer whose work focuses on human connection. No nudes here, or female portraiture, although women appear in most of the photographs on view.

Gail Albert-Balaban: Bis Rue de Douai, Paris, 9E, Le 19 Mai, 2013, archival inkjet print.
Gail Albert-Halaban: Bis Rue de Douai, Paris, 9E, Le 19 Mai, 2013, archival inkjet print.

Vis a Vis Paris is a continuation of Out of My Window, a series started in New York in 2010, in which she photographed the life of her neighbors behind the windows of their apartments during sleepless nights as a new mother, which ameliorated the solitude she felt.

She experiences the same feeling of estrangement and disconnection from people living physically close to each other in Paris.

In the foreword to her book Paris Views (Aperture), Halaban defines herself as a “friendly window-watcher” rather than a voyeur, someone who, as a child, “loved to look at the lights of the building next door spilling onto the deserted streets.”

In truth, her New York series was openly voyeuristic in nature: She took pictures through and into windows without people’s consent. In Paris, however, she was less intrusive, asking permission to record the intimate moments of a child’s birthday party or a woman playing with her cat. For each photograph, Halaban secured the access of two facing apartments and then stage-managed each scene. Using her computer to communicate through Skype — sometimes remotely from her home in New York — she composed her images by directing the residents’ moves, making them active participants.

By photographing primarily at dusk, Halaban transformed the illuminated windows into light boxes and contrasted them with the gray tones of Parisian facades and zinc rooftops, turning each scene into a singular tableau.

The series offers much variation, both close-up and open perspectives. Of course, Halaban had to work with the existing street grid, which was not easy. She had little room to play with angles at times and, to her credit, she restricted herself to a focal length that resembles that of the human eye, neither zooming in nor out, to stay true to the genuine perspective. The most captivating pieces isolate a dweller in the immensity of the Parisian landscape, such as in Bis Rue de Douai, Paris, 9E.

The artist demonstrates the same strong sense of aesthetics in Hopper Redux, another body of work on view, in which she photographed the places that Edward Hopper painted while residing in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Halaban acknowledges the modernism in Hopper’s work — how he transformed ordinary moments into a study of form, light and shadows — in a decidedly photographic way.

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