Faces: Photographs By Philip Trager

by Matt Damsker


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Steidl Publishers, co-published with the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, and the Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University. 124 pages; 48 tritone plates. ISBN No. 3-86521-131-3. Steidl, Dustere Strasse 4, D-37073 Gottingen, Germany. Phone: +49 551 49 6060; fax: +49 551 49 60 649; email: mail@steidl.com ; website: http://www.steidl.de .

PhilipTrager's famed photographs of dancers and architecture form the basis for this study, for these "Faces" are not merely portraits but images of dancers cropped from the shoulders up. The result is a striking study in artifice and sheer personality, as the dancers--many of them among the top performers in modern terpsichory--prove wonderfully expressive, their visages heightened by greasepaint as they emote in thrall to whatever music is moving them.

If anything, Trager is staking out the architecture of the human head and upper body, housing their soulful and muscular reserves of theatrical power. Thus, an image of Mark Morris, head uplifted, eyes closed in rapture, with his arm posed across his bare chest, becomes something Olympian yet wholly human at the same time. And a wild-haired Mark Dendy, a bug-eyed Rachel Rosenthal, a mugging, Chaplinesque John Kelley, or a sternly twinned Lucy Sexton and Anne Iobst become emblems of aesthetic ferment, foible, and fun. Great Asian performers such as Koma Otake--captured here in a tumble of leaves, as if the victim of some natural disaster--or Ko Murobishi, powerfully bald and otherworldy, like a Buddhist monk in prayer, appear as archetypes, while a spectral Pam Quinn seems David Bowie-esque.

These black-and-white images range from the sharply focused to blurred motion studies that convey great emotion within Trager's limiting frame, and the reproductions, on glossy stock, are first-rate and generously sized at 10.5 x 13.25 inches (26.5 x 33.5 cm). Few coffee table books are as compelling in their simplicity as this one, if only because it invites countless return perusals, for there are as many moods contained in these images as there are clouds in the sky, it seems. Trager enhances all of this with interspersed poetry and quotations--well-chosen words from the likes of Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, C.K. Williams, and Rainer Maria Rilke ("Disguised since childhood/ haphazardly assembled/from voices and fears and little pleasures,/we come of age as masks./Our true face never speaks.").

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.