Philip Trager

by Matt Damsker


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Photographs by Philip Trager. With an interview with the photographer by Stephanie Wiles, and essays by Barbara L. Michaels, Eiko Otake, Norton Owen, Clare Rogan, Andrew Szegedy-Maszak and John Wood. Published by Steidl; 2006. 311 pages; approximately 200 plates. ISBN No. 3-86521-239-5; also ISBN 13: 978-3-86521-239-9. Steidl, Dustere Str. 4, D-37073 Gottingen, Germany. Phone: +49 551-49 6060; fax: +49 551-49 60 649; email: ; online: or .

This comprehensive volume of Philip Trager's peerless black-and-white photography is an overview spanning four decades. It is also a solid companion to two years of Trager exhibitions that began with a major retrospective early this year at Wesleyan University's Davison Art Center (the same show now continues through September 17 at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, and will move to the Allen Memorial Art museum at Oberlin College in 2007). With an exhibition slated at Trager's long-time New York gallery, John Stevenson, November 2 to December 30, 2006 and additional museum and gallery venues being arranged throughout the U.S. and Europe, the photographer's work is achieving an apotheosis of visibility--and this hefty volume from Steidl proves that there is a lot to see.

Trager's open-air depictions of great dancers in motion may be his unique contribution to figural photography, but it is easy to argue that his architectural studies will prove his greater legacy. Apart from the formal and tonal perfection of his architectural shots, their crispness and purity (purged of all but the most marginal of peoplings) captures a sense of place few other photographers can claim. Trager's studies of the saltbox shapes and Victorian facades of the homes in his native Connecticut, for example, exude all the dignified reserve and laconic grace of the New England sensibility, and seem on a painterly par with Edward Hopper. Similarly, Trager's studies of the adobe church of Rancho de Taos, New Mexico, with desert sunlight bisecting the smooth shapes, are like abstract canvases, yet they shimmer before us with palpable heat.

Trager's great shots of New York City's heights and depths are even more Hopper-esque, as sunlight rakes the rich, man-made volume like a cosmic spotlight, amid countless inventive, often tilted, perspectives. For example, the spiraling modernism of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum is viewed from a side that reveals an ugly wedge of neighboring apartment building, while a terrace view toward Federal Plaza crams the pure mass of an opposing skyscraper down our throats. Trager is just as inspired and unerring in his views of Italian villas, Parisian iconography or the empty streets of Birmingham, AL. By the time he turned to dancers and faces in the 1980s and 90s, Trager was more than ready to capture the architecture of the human figure--and especially the noble houses of the head and torso. And so he does, with limbs straining to escape gravity or yielding to its pull, and expressive visions of prepossessing people.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.