Charles Traub

Alan Frumkin Gallery

CHARLES TRAUB had been doing extremely strong, black and white photography in which people appeared as textural contrasts, formal elements, variations within the photo frame, vehicles for shadow and light, demarcations of a surface plane—anything but personalities with human distinction. But his recent, color Street Portraits seem to want to retract that former philosophy about photographic priorities.

This new work resembles those four-shots-for-fifty-cent strips you get out of dime-store photo machines. Traub’s portraits are all close up, sometimes shot from below or tilted, with the city buildings behind them at odd angles, accentuating the idea of a momentary stoppage, often as if the people had their noses pressed against the photo surface for a second, only to move on immediately. Some in tee shirts, other business-types in suits and ties, various ladies with too much makeup, people who look perplexed or indifferent, people acting seductively or as if their vanity were being fed, others who seem to dislike the idea of having their picture taken—all of them with the lunch-hour faces you ordinarily see in the heavily trafficked city streets.

The contradiction in all this democratically inspired work is its excellent technique. I’m not sure but what the photo machine with its grainy blacks and whites and its torn edges wouldn’t be more appropriate for these—I have to say it—vapid faces and the smile-you’re-on-Candid-Camera procedure. Instead, Traub’s prints have an extraordinary mirrorlike sheen, sometimes seeming to bow out like a Victorian hour-glass cover, and his atmospheric, creamy, pastel apricot and turquoise shades look laid over the faces, like some form of photographic cosmetic.

I resist the easy lure of discovering an under-the-surface meaning in these pictures. Perhaps if they did show wisdom, suffering, pathos, anger, and so forth—all the things you haven’t time to search for in the faces you pass every day—Traub’s idea might work out. Unfortunately, I found myself waiting for these subjects to walk on, waiting for perhaps something else to walk in, something somehow more suited to Traub the photographer.

C. L. Morrison