Photography Melds Movement and Architecture

Building Museum Celebrates Philip Trager

Posted July 15, 2009 at 4:39pm

Philip Trager started his career in the 1970s as a commercial real estate attorney in Connecticut.

“Even when I was in my law office, however, I would be daydreaming about photography,— he told the Web site TakeGreatPictures.com in 2007. He abandoned his law career to pursue photography full time in 1992.

Trager has come a long way in his 40 years as an accomplished photographer. His career has evolved from early photographs of buildings in Connecticut and New York to photographs of dancers. Until the past couple of years, he had always shot in black-and-white; now he shoots in brilliant color.

The whole range of Trager’s work is on display in an exhibit “Form & Movement: Photographs by Philip Trager— at the National Building Museum. This is the final show in the museum’s Year of the Photograph series.

The prints are borrowed from the Library of Congress’ growing collection of Trager’s work, and some of those not used in the exhibit will appear in the halls of the American Institute of Architects’ office starting in October.

Throughout his career, Trager has compiled and published books of his work. The first, “Photographs of Architecture,— was published in 1977. The most recent self-titled book, published in 2006, is a retrospective of Trager’s career. Cases displaying the books and other publications where Trager’s work was published are set up throughout the exhibit.

National Building Museum curators divided the exhibit into six sections: Suspending Movement, In the Darkroom, Light and Texture, Modern Classics, Point of View and Coda. Other than Coda, which shows a smattering of Trager’s most recent work, each section shows both architecture and dance photography.

For example, in the first section, Suspending Movement, the curators paired photographs of buildings next to photographs of dancers, each one appearing to have frozen while in fluid motion. The first photograph is of dancer Arthur Aviles arching his back in midair, so his legs disappear behind his back and his closed eyes are turned toward the camera. Next to this picture is a photograph of a building on West 122nd Street in New York City, its curving stairways slinking toward the columns on either side of the entrance.

A similar photo in the Point of View section was taken of West 34th Street in 1977. It shows buildings surging toward the thinly clouded sky in the kind of scene that would normally appear before Superman breaks into view.

The most jarring photo in the exhibit was taken of the World Trade Center in 1979. The buildings jut into the sky, partially blocked by the Equitable Building where Trager took the shot. The buildings were completed in 1973 after seven years of construction, then bombed in 1993 and finally, of course, destroyed in the terrorist attacks of 2001.

In the Coda, Trager departs from his black-and-white architecture and dance photography to shoot some more personal portraits. The first and most striking frame shows nine shots of his wife, Ina, taken in 2008. She wears a red shirt and faces a mirror, so each frame shows her back, then her reflection in the mirror and finally Trager’s own reflection in the mirror.

The exhibit will be open through Jan. 3, 2010.