New York

Charles Traub

Hudson River Museum

When Charles Traub is out on the street, he sometimes goes up to strangers and asks to take their pictures. If they agree, he snaps a portrait “before a self-conscious mask can be prepared for the camera,” according to a statement that accompanied the show. The results are disconcerting, and not just because Traub has caught these people somewhat off-guard. He has in fact put them in a very peculiar position by taking their pictures while standing extremely close—so close that his own shadow occasionally falls on his subject, even at midday. These color portraits have been made with a wide-angle lens which allows Traub to get this close and still have sufficient depth of field and speed to shoot by reflex, without warning. But I don’t think it matters how long Traub gives his subjects to ready themselves for the picture. At this range a camera has a powerful gravitational effect on a subject, who is pulled out of shape not only optically by the wide-angle lens. but also psychologically by the presence of the camera under his or her nose. The camera is at the same time both an invitation and a threat, and this shows in Traub’s pictures.

Being too near a stranger makes people uncomfortable. It’s human nature. Like people brought together in an elevator or subway, the subjects of these portraits don’t know where to put their eyes. Some gaze into space. Others flinch with their eyelids. They blink as if afraid the camera might actually brush against their faces in photographing them. Even among those who manage to look into the lens, a few can’t bring themselves to do so directly. They turn aside and glance back at the camera as if trying to create a greater distance between them and it. They are looking for a more circuitous, circumspect approach to having their pictures taken.

The way the photographs were printed and hung for this show put the viewer in much the same position in which Traub’s camera put his subjects. I had to stand very close to these small prints hung at eye level, with the result that I felt the same ambivalence as the subjects. I didn’t know where to put my eyes, either. Because we find it hard to look people right in the eye when they move too close to us, we often fix on some other feature. Traub is obviously aware of this, for he always picks subjects who have an interesting feature for us to fixate upon. Sometimes this is a feature made salient by the photograph, a pouty lip or toothy underbite exaggerated by the wide-angle lens. But more typically the disfigurement belongs to the subjects themselves—a scar across an upper lip, an errant whisker, a peeling nose plastered with a thick layer of lotion, a grotesque display of jewelry.

In the gallery beyond the one containing these 42 portraits, there were a number of other street photographs Traub had done. I suspect, however, that this more conventional street photography came first in Traub’s development, and that the idea for the portraits followed from it. In their sense of timing, and even in the use made of their limited backgrounds, the portraits seem to learn from street photography. Traub’s street photographs are occasionally classic, as in a frieze of figures he took at a Paris bus stop; but the pictures are more frequently of subjects he snuck up on when they were asleep or engrossed in a book. In one pair of pictures, Traub has caught bare-breasted some Haitian girls who look as if they are unhappy about being photographed, but too intimidated to object. Though their subjects usually seem more at ease, the portraits contain the same tensions. Traub’s portrait work is provocative and fascinating. It held me in the gallery looking at it for nearly two hours. Yet I wonder whether Traub isn’t playing a rather trivial psychological game with these people. He’s having a staring contest in which he cheats by not counting the blinking that his camera does. The people Traub chooses to photograph and the reactions that flit across their faces make a pretty tight circular argument. These subjects are as we see them because having their pictures taken has rendered them thus. What does that go to show?

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.