Charles Traub, Vacant

JTF (just the facts): Self-published by Interlocuter Press in 2022 (here). Softcover, unpaginated, with 58 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Lyle Rexer and a short quote by T.S. Eliot. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As we continue to put space between us and whenever we call the official end of the pandemic, more and more photographic responses to that tumultuous period have kept emerging. After we saw the first initial wave of surreal images of eerily empty streets in busy global cities – which we knew even then would have a short artistic moment – the creative response to the situation started to fragment. Some photographers hunkered down with their families at home, and turned their cameras on those claustrophobic domestic realities. Others who had access to their studios worked alone, making pictures within those confines or revisiting older archives that could be creatively repurposed. Still others simply left their typical haunts for some place of refuge, where access to the natural world and open air felt like a tonic. Each photographer, almost regardless of his or her personal circumstances, wrestled with unexpected limits,  constraints, and closed off pathways, which for many, were a catalyst for new adaptive thinking.

Charles Traub’s response to the COVID-19 situation came in the form of wandering through the empty streets of New York City, but instead of making obvious pictures of the deserted sidewalks and oddly traffic-free streets, he made observations of the closed storefronts and boarded up businesses that seemed to fill each and every block. In a sense, he had to keep being a photographer, in whatever form was possible at that moment – even if the world didn’t entirely cooperate – and walking through the streets making pictures with his smartphone camera was the only logical thing to do. If nothing else, it was a way to get out of the house, stay creatively busy, and get some arguably fresh air.

Storefronts have a long and storied history as a photographic subject. Window displays of goods on sale, vernacular signage, architectural details, mannequins, and glass reflections are just some of the storefront subjects photographers have played with over the years, and the list of notable artists who have documented shops includes Atget, Evans, and Abbott, followed more recently by Model, Friedlander, and Moriyama, among many others. What’s unexpected about Traub’s contribution to the genre is that it is essentially a negation of this tradition – his images document the anti-storefront, the absence of displays, or simply the emptiness of former stores. His views are consistently blocked, papered off, boarded up, closed, vacant, locked up, and altogether unwelcoming, frustrating even the barest attempts to just see inside.

With more than a dozen photobooks to his credit, Traub is no stranger to shaping a body of work into photobook form, and Vacant has all the hallmarks of the work of a savvy veteran who knows how to sequence pictures with thoughtfulness and panache. Starting with a cover image that places abandoned toilet paper rolls on shelves that give them the look of an art installation, and followed by a few spreads of fogged windows and disorienting scratched reflections, Vacant settles into inspired image pairings that turn on echoes of form, color, texture, or material, each turn of the page offering a visually sophisticated back-and-forth.

Traub generally keeps his framing tight, cropping out any context of sky or sidewalk and pushing us toward doorways, windows, and other discoveries that have been deliberately isolated. It is inside this zone of observation that he can then begin to play with potential matches – between posted notices and spackled holes; between lonely mannequin parts; between rectangular forms of emptiness; between light cornflower blue colors; and between fluted column patterns, all seen in successive page turns. He notices the parallel between the peeling edge of a papered over door and a dented landscape photograph in a dumpster. He revels in studies of light pink, where lattice patterns of woodwork and a broken window seem related. He sees the letter J in both a scrawl of graffiti and the bend of netting partially covering a tree. And he draws a triangular connection between a scrap of torn poster and an orange shape seen through a window.

Of course, he didn’t necessarily go looking for these echoes as he wandered the streets of the city – they found him, likely after the fact, when he could better survey his quarry. But when sequenced in just the right order, Traub’s pairings feel elegantly effortless. Rainbow colors, decaying surfaces, wrinkled textures, and bending swirls all link together in a stepwise parade, kitting the city together in delightfully unexpected ways. Traub even offers wry humor (in the busts arranged between a “maintain six feet of distance” sign), incisive capitalist commentary (in a pairing of two closed bank branches), and local political reporting (in a double spread image with the scrawl “house the fucking people”), all while having time to notice the unlikely connection between a swirled marble floor and the shadow of plants behind a screen, or the repetition of security gate patterns in different sizes. At a time when many of us were stuck in a grimly passive rut, Traub was still an active and open photographic observer, seeing something more than mere emptiness.

Vacant ends on a poignant note, with an image of a lonely plastic Christmas tree set in an otherwise bare room, its twinkling lights trying to add just a little bit of optimism to an otherwise desolate scene. It feels like a fitting end to a photobook that is at once modest and sneakily polished, where understated aesthetic sophistication is found in even the most humble and forgettable locations in this great city. As an homage to the mood of the pandemic years, Vacant is altogether successful, pulling us back to a moment of disorienting deprivation, which is then quietly overcome by Traub’s stubbornly persistent looking.

Collector’s POV: Charles Traub does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect with the photographer via his website, linked in the sidebar.

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