Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Echoes of Silence: Philip Trager, Early Photographs, 1967-83 @NYPL

JTF (just the facts): A total of 84 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against grey walls in two separate hallway galleries on the third floor of the library. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1967 and 1983. No physical dimensions or edition information was available on the wall labels. The exhibit also includes a wooden case containing four of Trager's photobooks. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Philip Trager's early photographs are remarkably straightforward and unpretentious. Executed with a pared down, unassuming formalism and combined with a touch of New England reserve, the images draw from Walker Evans' lyric documentary style and extend it in quiet, more personal directions. The pictures remind us of the value of consistent craftsmanship and win us over with their modest precision.
The photographs in this show span a wide range of subject matter, from Connecticut towns and New York city landmarks, to cactus abstractions, intimate nudes, and architectural details from Paris, Barcelona, and San Francisco. Mansions in Norwalk, row houses in New Haven, and downtown buildings in Hartford are all seen with a familiar frontal Modernism, tracking repeated geometries, flanking trees, and salt box simplicity. Trager's New York pictures capture icons like the Guggenheim, the Flatiron building, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with measured grace, and close in on overlooked city details, like a swirl of stone steps, a series of vaulted arches, and a group of zig zag of fire escapes under a Chock Full o' Nuts sign. His fascination with the nuances of architecture extends into the 1980s, where he tackled the stately campus of Wesleyan University and the linear strata of Frank Lloyd Wright's houses.
Seeing these pictures was a reminder for me that we have largely moved beyond this kind of old school rigor these days. The crispness of vision here is tempered by attentive gentleness, not overly exaggerated by conceptual frameworks or self-referential styling. Looking back, it's as if the sound has been deliberately turned down, so we are forced to look more closely.
Collector's POV: Since this is effectively a museum show, there are no posted prices for the works on display. Trager's work has very little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up. The artist is represented by Fahey-Klein in Los Angeles (here) and prints are also available directly from Trager at the website below.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Features/Reviews: New Yorker (here), Wall Street Journal (here)
Through February 17th

New York Public Library
Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street
New York, NY 10018

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