Yasmine Chatila at Edelman Arts

"I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do," wrote Diane Arbus. "And when I first did it I felt very perverse." In photographing strangers without their knowledge or consent, Yasmine Chatila deploys the medium's voyeuristic naughtiness much more literally than Arbus did. Over a period of eight months, Chatila set up her photographic equipment in New York City apartments with unobstructed views of interiors across the way--a real-life "Rear Window"--and waited for dramas to unfold. And they did--surprisingly or not, depending on how vigilant you think the average person is in maintaining his or her privacy. To protect identities, Chatila digitally obscured faces and altered building facades.

In one window, we see a gay male couple in a passionate embrace; a cat watches from its perch in the window (The Kiss, Lower East Side, Sunday 11:37 PM, all photos 2007-08). The men's expression of love seems all the more genuine for having been captured by an unseen camera. Though the titles of her works seem purely descriptive, some of them convey shades of Chatila's fantasies and projection. A clothed "bachelor" and his naked female lover appear in a palatial kitchen (The Bachelor, Wall Street, Friday 11:34 PM), Elsewhere, an attractive blonde teenage girl undresses and regards herself naked (The Blondie Teen, Greenwich Village, Tuesday 6:27 PM). The cliches stumbled upon by Chatila's predatory eye are never boring; though hewing closely to the expected, life comes as a titillating shock.

The images in the exhibition are, for the most part, large--some of them as big as 71 1/2 by 110 inches. Shot in black and white, and grainy from distance and night-vision distortions, Chatila's "Stolen Moments," as the exhibition is titled, recall the moods of cinema verite and film noir. In fact, on the second floor of the gallery, Chatila showed her filmic composite of some of the larger photographs played as successive stills, with a soundtrack of muffled voices and street noise. We see a mother put her daughter to bed in Little Girl Sitting on Bed, Chelsea, Sunday 7:45 PM, then leave the room. In subsequent images, the child jumps on the bed, pulls the sheets over her like a tent, and generally makes a ruckus--anything to avoid sleep. This glimpse of a child's private mischievousness feels refreshing and innocent when contrasted to the adult dramas. In their quiet sensationalism, Chatila's photographs remind us that a closed door allows individual freedom and moral latitude. Ethical concerns aside, the images allow us to see our own vulnerabilities reflected in the lives of imperfect strangers.

Art in America, December 2008