Written by Riley McGraw Hart
When Gayle Kirschenbaum mentioned that she shot the entirety of her solo photography exhibit Still Moments on the iPhone, she laughed at my shocked expression.
“Apple is missing a real marketing opportunity here,” I told her.
Kirschenbaum — filmmaker, public speaker, producer, writer, editor, and umbrella creative— shrugged with a kind smile on her face. “It isn’t the equipment that matters,” she reminded me. “It’s the person, and what they see and what they do with it.”
Still Moments opened this past month at the Westbeth Artists Housing and Center for the Arts in the West Village. Upon our introduction, Kirschenbaum’s oozing vibrancy struck me instantly. She wore thick framed glasses; behind them her eyes sparked with vitality and passion. Her voice radiated as she spoke to me about her work. While her photography has been exhibited in group shows in New York City and the Photo Biennale in Barcelona, Kirschenbaum has debuted her first solo showcase at the Westbeth.
Still Moments features a collection of visually appealing landscapes all shot digitally on the iPhone. The show’s objective was to encourage people to see life through her eyes. “I see in pictures,” Kirschenbaum told me, instinctually noting the various compositions within her immediate environment. In choosing subject material, she paid particular attention to angles of the world around her and how they interacted with a natural color spectrum. Her focus innately seized surrounding symmetry or the lack thereof. Kirschenbaum’s compositional choices combined with the juxtaposition of saturation, shadows, and exposure consistently made for a striking image.
Perhaps a reason that digital photography came so easily to Kirschenbaum is because of its inherently quick-paced convenience—she admitted she didn’t necessarily consider herself a patient person. It seemed fitting to me that she favored highlighting raw material in her images rather than committing to a complete alteration.
“I don’t change or add any colors,” she said. “If anything, I just saturate or accentuate them to draw them out.” By exaggerating the existing colors or textures via filters and minimal editing, Kirschenbaum manages to capture the salient essence of day-to-day scenery.
As an inherently creative soul, she began experimenting with photography in college as a fine arts major. She developed her own black and white photos in the darkroom, where she unexposed them and then experimented with color by painting on top with Marshall’s photo oils. She created a photographic series after realizing she needed to tell stories through her work. It makes sense, then, that Kirschenbaum eventually turned to filmmaking. She cultivated an auspicious career and produced documentaries like My Nose and Look At Us Now, Mother! She even gave a TED Talk on the subject matter. Eventually, Kirschenbaum returned in a fervor to photography, explaining to me that she is “an artist first and a documentarian second.”
Kirschenbaum started taking photos again on her first smartphone, a Treo, in 2007 but did not start seriously shooting until she got the iPhone 8 Plus. In her studio, she keeps few such prints, hazier and more like a fever-dream than those featured in Still Moments. Her debut solo exhibit didn’t take long to put together, consisting of selecting seventeen photos out of the forty or so that were up for archival consideration. As we walked through the gallery, Kirschenbaum noted various anecdotes about her showcased work. For instance, “Untitled #1” and “Untitled 2” were both shot on the Mekong Delta River in Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Since both images are untouched, Kirschenbaum’s friends sometimes refer to them as pseudo-National Geographic pictures. They are evidence of Kirschenbaum’s keen eye in making editorial choices. “Untitled #10” is an aerial view of New York City’s skyline that Kirschenbaum literally shot through the window of her commercial airline trip. Viewers can even spot a sliver of the wing in the bottom left corner, a hint of human ingenuity briefly embedded in the vast horizon. While touring her studio, Kirschenbaum also showed me the differences from before and after editing “Untitled #9,” an enigmatic view of the coast in Sydney, Australia. The contrast is arresting: the deep shadows of the original made it look like an inverted reflection of the piece on showcase.
“You can see that everything is there, and I’m just choosing what to bring out,” Kirschenbaum said. “Therein lies the art of the artist– in their expression.
Kirschenbaum showed me the photos that were cut from Still Moments as well. In those, she played around with texture filters. The result bore sentiments of aesthetic nostalgia and a yearning for the captive moments of the past. Upon hanging the exposition, Kirschenbaum realized she would need to downsize and now offers special walkthroughs of her studio to view additional work. As an approachable woman with voluminous integrity, she is available to her viewers to answer any queries and may be contacted via email, available on her website.
While artists generally find passion in the process, Kirschenbaum refreshingly takes more interest in the final result. In developing her work, she does not overthink the in-progress-project or succumb to analysis paralysis. Kirschenbaum revealed: “I’m very fast in my art because I don’t have much patience. I’m not into the process or technology… That’s why the iPhone is so perfect for me.” The modern and convenient method of capturing moments in time on handheld devices, combined with a light editorial touch, helps quicken the production timeline. Kirschenbaum appeared to listen solely to her gut in guiding her to expression. Perhaps this mentality harked back to her fierce intent to truly reach the hearts of viewers through her work— the audience, after all, is rarely taken along the artists journey and only experiences the finished piece.
Still Moments’ thematic thread of appreciating static serenity is wildly different than those of Kirschenbaum’s previous works, which discussed forgiveness around trauma. Her umbrella success in professional creativity stems from her capability to genuinely reach even the most granite souls. As a self-proclaimed empath, Kirschenbaum understands what motivates people and she wields the knowledge like a gentle blade.
Still Moments thus urges the spectator to “be [her] eyes” and to consider the world through somebody else’s perspective even for just a few seconds. After all, through perspective comes empathy. “The keyword is connecting,” she continued. “I can get a pulse on people. It’s not a big thing, but it’s an important thing.”
The exhibition presented as an invigorating collection that seeped with visceral humanity, even if the majority did not actually feature people. To capture such subtlety and nuance, Kirschenbaum perpetuated the belief that life offers endless silver linings, if one knows where to search. Still Moments was uplifting instead of achingly tragic. It asked the onlooker to ponder a fraction of captured time at a peaceful angle, instead of a disheartening one. Still Moments is obscenely beautiful in it’s raw tenacity, especially in the face of today’s disparaging political arena.
As Kirschenbaum looks forward, she aims to build a career as a fine art photographer. She’s been especially inclined towards the artform as of late because the response to her work has been “very humbling.” One day, she hopes to see her photos in top galleries such as Pace in Manhattan since she doesn’t want her work to be hidden away or unseen. Kirschenbaum desires the public to enjoy it, to experience it, to learn and grow.
“It’s important that I have an impact,” Kirschenbaum said regarding creative overlaps in her art across mediums. “It’s all about relationships… forgiveness is a seed to peace and anger is a seed to war. That is essential.”
Still Moments is available to view 24/7 at the Westbeth Artists Housing and Center for the Arts on Bethune Street in Manhattan, NYC, until March 31, 2020.
Riley McGraw Hart is a creative writer at The New School contributing to Honeysuckle Magazine as an editorial intern. She is also part of The New School’s award winning literary magazine, The 12th Street Journal, as an editorial staff member. Riley is currently writing a memoir about grief, family, and the pursuit of individualized identity in the face of trauma. She’s especially thankful Mercury is going out of retrograde soon.