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«Skid Row». Beyond the urban chic

In this short piece, Philosopher Tom Huhn reviews the latest work of the famous street photographer Charles H. Traub. The volume is a photographic testimony of the American urban fabric of the late seventies named «Skid Row».

Introduction

Consider Traub’s photographs as a counterpoint to the ubiquitous standard and clichéd images of the urban life of New York City: pedestrians in Times Square or throngs of commuters in the Great Hall of Grand Central Station. These iconic images of urban places teeming with life evoke not so much the feeling of life but accomplish something more like a documentation that occludes – merely by means of an overabundance of human numbers – any visual space where loss might pool. 

And this is what makes those standard images of urban life so strangely anonymous. Such an excess of people works to forestall the appearance of any place of loss. Recall that it was precisely the promise of anonymity that has long been one of the most alluring features of urban life. And yet, the fulfillment of this promise carries with it at once both the security of invisibility –and thereby for some of us the possibility of reinventing oneself as someone else – as well as the vulnerability of being effaced by the very same wash of anonymity. 

«Why lost people sometimes develop in to greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their lives?»

Nelson Algren

The nostalgia for city neighborhoods of the past is a curious tribute to urban anonymity. To speak wistfully of a past New York’s Lower East Side, for example, is, strangely, to extend the anonymity of contemporary urban life by encasing the past in a securely sealed off, fully furnished, unvisitable locale. How do we come to be so possessed by wistfulness for certain past urban locales?

Skid Row. Portrait of a man.

The power of a portrait

I look at Traub’s portraits and find myself measuring different degrees of self-possession. One of their most striking features is the range of self-possession on display.  This facet strikes me as especially curious in portraits of the purportedly down and out. And so I’m led to think about the relationship between what it means to be lost and these portraits of self-possession. They are related to the formal feature of the photograph that makes each one cohere into a single image. 

In this regard, portraiture, and especially photographic portraits, is already composed by the very faces that are the objects at the center of each portrait. Since portraits rely on the composure of the face, the portrait image can’t help but depend upon the pre-existing unity of the face. This unity serves of course as our primordial model for the unity of any and every image. Traub’s portraits of faces weathered, aged, incapacitated, etc. are also ciphers for us of the variety of ways in which the image come together. The lines, cracks, lumps, and derangements of Traub’s portrait faces thus also stand for the gaps shards and edges out of which we are composed.  

Hear Charles H. Traub talking about his new book

The reality of Skid Row

If the portrayed face acts as a vehicle for the viewer’s composition of whatever holds together the many bits of the world, then Traub’s portraits provide not so much the reassurance that the world and our experience form a unity as they rather convey how tentative and tenuous it is. These portraits are then not a likeness of this person or that but rather of the very glue that temporarily holds things together and in place.

This helps us understand why so many of Traub’s portraits here are at once both compelling and disconcerting. They document people not fully held together, as well as portray our own ambivalent holding together with them.  These are not vacant faces; they are rather fully occupied but somehow disarranged, allowing us to discover something not in them but about them. Traub’s street photography goes to the heart of the activity of human faces presenting themselves for the camera, composing themselves, we might say, as whole unified beings whose composure mimetically provides an occasion for the human collective. Traub relishes his role as a street photographer because it grants him special access to the event of the photographic subject composing and collecting herself.

— Excerpt from Considerations in Skid Row, Lazy Dog Press, Milan 2023 .

Tom Huhn is a philosopher, critic and curator. His doctor degree was in the study of aesthetics; Theodor Adorno and other Frankfurt School theorists. He has been both a Getty and Fulbright scholar among other honors, and is widely published. Presently he is the chair of BFA Art History and Critical Studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Charles H. Traub is a legend of the american street photography. Check his bio here.

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