by CLAIRE O’NEILL
“Photographer Gail Albert Halaban spent her childhood summers in Gloucester, Mass., a small seaside town where her father was born. “I never thought it was that interesting of a place,” she says. “The beach was beautiful, but I was interested in getting to know it better.”
So she was somewhat surprised to learn that Edward Hopper, the beloved American realist painter, had also spent his summers there decades earlier; for whatever reason, Halaban says, people in town rarely talked about it when she was growing up. Still more curious was that although Gloucester is a town of picturesque coastal scenes, Hopper mostly painted houses.
“Hopper was playing with modernism,” Halaban explains. “And he was really looking at the light and the shadow — and how that formed shape, so his work was really about form in these pictures. He was also really interested in the working-class neighborhoods, not the wealthy.”
Halaban initially set out to create exact photographic copies of Hopper’s paintings. Then, she says, “I realized he already did such a great job, why would I need to do that? So I went back again and thought — I’m going to stand in the same place, but I want to make them my own.”
Mansard Roof, 1923, by Edward Hopper (left), which is now at the Brooklyn Museum, compared withMansard Roof by Gail Albert Halaban (right). Though the building is the same, Halaban photographed it at night.
Brooklyn Museum and Gail Albert Halaban
So, for example, she photographs at different times of day than when Hopper painted, poses people in the pictures and uses higher contrast — something seen in Hopper’s later work.
Hopper was still relatively unknown when he was painting the Gloucester watercolors and hadn’t yet developed his signature high-contrast oils, like in Nighthawks, for which he is better known.
Many years later, Halaban says, very little has changed in Gloucester. “If anything, I’d say certain houses have become even less fancy,” she says. “They’ve been divided into multifamily homes or put aluminum siding on.”
But Hopper might have seen beauty in aluminum siding. And some 90 years later, the shadows and forms on mansard roofs that so impressed Hopper are still there, available to whoever might pass to admire.
Halaban’s photos of Gloucester are now on display at New York City’s Edwynn Houk Gallery. She also has a new book out, called Out My Window.”