“Philip Trager: Photographing Ina,” an exhibition of work by Phil Trager ’56, Hon. ’08, P’81, GP’11, and based on his new book, opened at the Davison Art Center on March 24. It will run through May 22. Pictured are Ina and Philip Trager.
The exhibition, like the book, has two parts. The first is a series of immaculately composed black-and-white photographs taken in the 1980s, after 25 years of marriage. The second part, taken in the last decade after 50 years of marriage, reveals Trager’s new color photography—an unexpected and tender meditation on the act of photographing, on perception, color, and light.
Wesleyan President Michael Roth examines Trager’s black and white portraits.
Bill Johnston, professor of history, professor of East Asian studies, professor of science in society, examines the images in Trager’s forthcoming book, Philip Trager: Photographing Ina. Trager’s second book coming out this spring is Philip Trager: New York in the 1970s (Steidl, May 2016). This book draws from the same series of negatives taken from an earlier book on 1970s New York City architecture, which Wesleyan Press published. This book, like his most recent photographs of Ina, also shows a change from the artist’s earlier vision. “I edited these in—well, it’s not street photography, it’s still formal, but it’s looser,” he says. I guess peoples’ aesthetics evolve and that’s how they evolved for me.”
Davison Art Center Curator Clare Rogan (pictured in center), who was curating Trager’s work for the second time since she began at Wesleyan, noted that the black and white photographs, taken of Trager’s wife Ina in the 1980s are “crisp, modernist images… closely cropped, with precise attention to form and pattern.” The second, more recent set, are after 50 years of marriage and are Trager’s first foray into color photography. Rogan notes that these “open up the view to include the surroundings, and playfully acknowledge the photographer, who is visible in the many mirrors in the series. The modernist construction of the first series gives way to the theatricality of overtly posed color images.”
“Over time, I’ve worked with three Wesleyan curators—Puffin D’Oench ’73, Stephanie Wile and now Clare Rogan. Clare has a good eye. To me, that’s most important; she’s perceptive. I think Wesleyan is extremely fortunate to have had these three curators of the highest level,” Trager said.
The evening artist’s reception featured a Q&A with Trager and Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, Wesleyan’s Jane A. Seney Professor of Greek and chair of the Classics Department. Szegedy-Maszak, longtime friend of Trager, is a dedicated photography collector and a scholar. He also wrote the essay for the book Philip Trager: Photographing Ina (Steidl, May 2016) from which these photographs for the exhibition were selected. (Photos by Will Barr ’18)
After Rogan’s introductory remarks, attendees were treated to an informal Q&A between the two friends, Trager and Szegedy-Maszak, an excerpt of which follows:
Andrew Szegedy-Maszack: Phil, how did this project start?
Philip Trager: I first photographed architecture and then dancers and out of dancers came the faces. From that came the idea of portraiture but in the landscape, so these are really portraits integrated into the landscape.
I had never photographed in color or digitally, so ultimately this project evolved as a challenge. Of course our relationship, Ina’s and mine, has been so close over the years that I simply wanted carry it forward from the black-and-whites.
ASM: I want to ask you about the nature of the collaboration between yourself and Ina. Are you directing and she’s acting? Are you talking over different possibilities as you go through? Is that especially true for the newer work, because you’re present in so many of them, thanks to the mirrors?
PT: I wanted to show the relationship between the photographer and model. The idea was to show subtle movements with direction. The photographer Lee Friedlander had an expression that went something like, ‘When you are taking a photograph it is like someone coming at you in a basketball court and you have to play it as it comes.’ He meant you can’t be too structured.
I think that’s only half true. You take it as it comes and you build on that, but you are thinking in advance about other things.
So, a photographer’s direction can be as simple as head movement—side to side, up and down—but always with the light in mind; the raw, natural light is integrated into the landscape. The light is changing constantly and you are changing constantly.
I learned as we worked, that I would tell Ina to move her head to the side and keep her eyes focused ahead…and do things like that. But yes, it was a close collaboration because it didn’t require a lot of explaining.