When we think of New York in the 1970s, it doesn’t usually conjure up a very pretty picture. The city was firmly in the doldrums, riddled with crime, debt and devastation. But there is little of this on show in Steidl’s new book of photographs by Philip Trager, shot towards the end of this difficult decade. Instead he presents an epic vision of New York’s magnificent architecture. With the photographs shown largely free of people, there is a somewhat post-apocalyptic vibe but the decay we know existed is mostly hidden from sight.
Trager is famous for another monograph of photographs taken in the city, Philip Trager: New York, which was published by Wesleyan University Press in 1980. The photographs here were taken at the same time, with the negatives originally archived for printing, though Trager moved onto other projects before any prints were made. An essay by Stephen C Pinson, a curator at the Met in New York, accompanies the photographs in the book and paints a portrait of Trager at the time, and of the cumbersome methods required to take these images.
“Phil places the bulky view camera on one of the two tripods he always has with him,” he writes. “He and his wife, Ina, had packed them into the Jeep Commando along with the camera, a case for film holders, a large camera bag for lenses and cable releases and a step stool. Because many of the streets and sidewalks are so narrow, he sometimes has to extend the taller tripod to its full height and needs the stool to allow him to look into the camera’s ground glass.”
Later in the piece, Pinson goes into the drawn-out process involved in creating the photographs. “It is almost 4.30 now, and Phil is ready to take the shot. He ducks under the black cloth sewn tightly to the back of the view camera, checks the scene and sets the aperture and shutter speed. The view on the ground glass at the back of the camera is reversed, upside down. Removing the dark slide, he fires the shutter with a cable release.”
Pinson’s descriptions set Trager’s work in another era, though the images themselves initially seem timeless. It is the details – advertising signs, the models of the cars – which set the photographs in the past, more than the architecture. Aside from those buildings which have changed or disappeared entirely, of course: especially the World Trade Center, whose twin towers appear curiously ghostlike in the shots where they appear.
New York In The 1970s undoubtedly will appeal to fans of photography and New York alike, and looks set to reinforce Trager’s reputation as the perfect chronicler of a certain vision of Manhattan, which seems likely to never go out of fashion.
New York In The 1970s by Philip Trager is published by Steidl, priced €48, steidl.de