The New York Public Library is asking for quiet with its current exhibition, Echoes of Silence, the first to consider the early works of the architectural photographer Philip Trager — but silence isn’t a word that comes to mind when looking at a Trager photograph. One is drawn instead to the photographer’s eye for movement, his propensity for morphing buildings into people and lifting texture and tone out of the black and white he works in, so that monochrome stills of architecture become polyphonic, playful photographs.
Arranged geographically, the exhibit sees Trager migrate from his hometown in Connecticut and the campus of his alma mater, Wesleyan University, to New York, Arizona, California, and further afield, to Paris and Barcelona. Yet, the strangest, most compelling photographs come from Trager’s home. At first glance, the installation of the Connecticut series resembles what might be the walls of a creepy real estate office: rows of stalwart houses, haunted mansions, and creaky old manors. But Trager’s houses have stories pushing up under them, like something meant to be dead stirring to life. Look at “Bristol, 1976,” in which an austere, turreted structure sits shrouded by trees in the distance, preceded by an expanse of grass. The grass leading up to the house — which reminded me, having watched it the night before, of Carrie’s eerie abode in Brian De Palma’s 1976 film — looks moveable. You can almost hear it crumpling underfoot.
A similar sense of doom lingers in “The Scheigs, 1969,” a portrait of a family taken outside their lopsided home. The husband, wife, and son in matching glasses and starched Peter Pan collars stare coldly out of the photograph, the only visible warmth to be deduced from their trained half-smiles and the woman’s hand resting, one imagines uncomfortably, on her husband’s shoulder. The Scheigs’ eyes are piercingly vacant, giving nothing — like the blank windows of their house — and yet the viewer feels she knows more about them than they know themselves. Look past the family’s posed correctness to the disheveled home behind them; there’s a hovering sense of disarray — that however structured their life, like their skewered home, it will fall apart.
On the rare occasion that Trager photographs people, they resemble buildings, like extended architectural appendages. His people come to life most when they interact with buildings, as in “Nani, Casa Milà, 1981,” where the photographer’s friend poses outside Gaudí’s Casa Milà, the dimensions of her body and face mirroring the building’s fragmented curvature. Nani’s given the choppy composition of an abstract Picasso, her own organized infrastructure: a tuft of her pixie haircut sticks up, her ear’s curled up over the raised collar of her leather jacket, under which her cheekbone is tucked, while the black of her jacket blurs into the house. This picture isn’t alienating like “The Scheigs”; rather, it compels us to draw aesthetic connections between body and building, engaged in a kind of dance together. It’s no surprise that Trager is a noted dance photographer; there’s a kinesis inherent to each photo — something is always in the process of transformation, or exchange.
Shadow is his trick: it’s what moves the stillness. Nowhere in the exhibition does it stand out more strongly than in “Dead Cow, near Mariposa, California, 1971,” where the image of a slain cow in a field is complicated by the photographer’s shadow in the bottom right-hand corner. It’s a remarkable picture. Trager’s self-implication in the photo — and by extension, the animal’s murder — reminds me of performance artist Chris Burden’s 1971 piece “Shoot,” for which the artist’s friend shot Burden in the arm. But Trager doesn’t involve himself so grossly. By edging himself into the frame, through shadow, he discreetly draws our attention to the murder of photography —how shooting a camera is like pulling a trigger, as Susan Sontag wrote — and the death of rural life.
In the urban center, too, Trager dislocates us once again, from the inside this time, making New York a strange, foreign place. Even the Chrysler building is unrecognizable. Shooting from the top, focusing on one of the building’s gray spikes, Trager makes it look like the beak of a steel bird flying over the sprawling city beneath. In other photographs, Trager has no qualms inducing vertigo, lopping off the bottoms of skyscrapers and transforming them into floating towers in the sky, or dangling us from the Flatiron building to marvel at the view, a mixture of fear and wonder. Trager’s New York is the dangerous, magical place that appears in disaster movies, but it’s also a city of a lost age, a pre-Starbucks and Duane Reade landscape we’re no longer familiar with, so we’re doubly disoriented.
Trager’s photographs aren’t silent echoes but evocative masterpieces that confront us with questions of humanity, mortality, and place. His images don’t bombard us, but they’re hardly what the poet, Theodore Roethke called “the imperishable quiet at the heart of the form,” as a quote in the exhibition would have us believe. Silence implies a stillness that Trager’s work just doesn’t embody. He shows us that buildings aren’t passive. We would be mistaken to think the same of his photographs.
Echoes of Silence: Philip Trager, Early Photographs, 1967–83 continues in the Print Gallery at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through February 17.