Thursday, April 24, 2014

Dolce Via by Charles Traub

My review of Dolce Via by Charles Traub (Damiani, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

(Full disclosure: Charles is a dear friend and colleague. Despite my bias, this is a great book. If you're at all a fan of smart street photography or social documentary work, this book is worth checking out.)


One of the many pleasures of seeing older work, especially work that has aged well, is that it gains new meaning within a contemporary context. Dolce Via by Charles Traub collects a series of color photographs taken in Italy during the 1980s, but is much more. While all older work maintains a certain seductive aura, it’s rare that such work exudes a sense of contemporaneity and offers fresh insight. Brimming with life, humor and sensuous energy, Dolce Via is at once a celebration of Italy and a valuable social and cultural document, but it is also a joyous reflection of the pleasures and challenges of being a street photographer. During the early 1980s, Charles Traub made numerous trips to Italy. Befriending photographers like the late Luigi Ghirri, Traub traveled throughout the country visiting Naples, Rome, Florence, Vienna and other cities. Shot primarily in medium format color, his large frames revel in the lush ancient details and vibrant colors of the day.

All images © Charles Traub, 2014

Although history and myth loom large, the statues and Roman walls that fill these images are also nothing but a picturesque stage on which the all too human drama of the street unfolds. Acutely aware of the stage on which his actors perform, Traub crafts complexly layered images that are humorous and alive. While pointed in their observation, they are compassionately revealed. In one image, the legs and akimbo stance of a young boy and girl standing on a dock eating gelato mirror the tilted and submerged dock posts behind them. In another, a horse is captured mysteriously bathing on a beach — the sunbathing women and two children in the foreground oblivious its presence. In others, men and women strip, bath, lounge and drink from the fabled Fontana di Trevi, whose appearance is a recurrent theme in the book — drawing us back with its magnetic pull and offering new dramas and new juxtapositions.

All images © Charles Traub, 2014

Playful and pointed, Traub’s images may expose our all too human side, but our foibles are always revealed with a gentle voyeuristic touch. Naked bodies luxuriate in the sun and diaphanous clothing reveals undergarments we may wish not to see. Streets and plazas become places of collisions and display. Men and women strut past in their fashionable, but now dated garb, momentarily performing for the camera or walk past unaware they’ve fallen into the frame. In many images, they bend awkwardly and unknowingly mimic the gestures of the statues and ancient friezes that surround them. This play between the history and myth of the place and its contemporary context is never forced, but is crucial thread tying the work together and imparts an immemorial legitimacy to the contemporary spectacle. As Faulkner notes, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

All images © Charles Traub, 2014

The book’s title, Dolce Via, is a playful twist of Fellini’s famous work, La Dolce Vita. Here the “sweet life” becomes the “sweet way” or road. While the titular sweet way evokes not only the pleasures of Italian life at the time, it is also suggestive of the practice of street photography — a joyful pursuit by those who fall victim to its particular allure. However, the sweetness of its rewards are tempered by its challenges. How does one make sense of the evocative and fleeting parade of life that plays out in front of the lens? How does one tie all the images together?

The poet and dramatist Luigi Ballerini grapples with this dilemma in one of the book’s two texts. It is constructed as a dialogue between the photographer and his muse, who is begrudgingly called to duty not only to help make sense of the photos but also to inspire. While no answers are found, a truce seems to be struck, an acknowledgement of sorts that much of the pleasures are found in the pursuit. Meaning comes later, in retrospect. Although the book begins with an excellent text by the eminent art historian and photographer Max Kozloff who thoughtfully addresses the work, Ballerini’s piece most closely addresses the heart of the work and its motivation — albeit in a less direct way than Kozloff.

All images © Charles Traub, 2014

 Unapologetically voyeuristic, Traub's photographs savor the visual play of flesh, ancient beauty and human frailty that unfolds before the frame. While much color work from the 70s and early 80s has resurfaced lately, such as the work of Anthony Hernandez and Mitch Epstein, much of that work takes itself too seriously. Humor is a rare feat to pull off in photographs, too often becoming facile one-liners or cruel set-ups. Traub succeeds by embracing the humanity of his subjects. It’s refreshing to see work that is so clearly enamored by its subject and the elusive craft of picture making on the street. This pleasure is palpable and helps make the work feel so alive, so relevant and so fresh.

Please note: This review originally appeared on April 24th, 2014 on photo-eye. You can get the book here.