Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Philip Trager at the New York Public Library

Philip Trager is well known for his photographs of dancers. A recent exhibition at the New York Public Library surveyed his earlier work, primarily architectural photographs taken in New York City, Connecticut and the Southwest. It is easy to see the consistencies of Trager's approach in both bodies of work: in particular, his use of diagonals, his very active method of framing, and his emphasis on flowing lines.







However, a series of photographs of historic buildings in Connecticut really captured my attention. At first, they give the impression of being somewhat detached and coldly formal. My experience of looking at them began by noting the overall symmetry, and then taking pleasure in observing where the symmetry broke down -- a dark window on left side mirrored by a light one on the right or a curved railing here matched by a rectangular one there, for example.





Often improbably tightly cropped, Trager clearly was paying attention to how to fit his subject within the frame.





There is something odd about these houses -- they almost seem sentient, despite their drawn curtains and dark windows. And that is where the real interest begins. These are not just formal studies of how to arrange dark and light shapes within a frame. Through their crooked lines and a use of a perspective which in some images pulls us in (see the arched windows at the top of the image just above) and in others push us back --- Trager's houses appear to breathe.




These images -- which may initially appear simple and direct -- reward a careful viewing. We can talk about the speed of an image: how long does it take a viewer to take it in before moving on to the next one?  What I like about Trager's architectural studies is that they seem fast but actually are slow. A fast image can entice and seduce. Generally a viewer reacts to a fast image. A slow image is more work, but it gives the viewer something to do. A viewer participates in a slow image.

Ultimately, participation is the more rewarding experience.



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