May 26, 2019

Random Moments, Petty Lies and Quiet Pleasures

Random Moments, Petty Lies and Quiet Pleasures

Photography seems like a truthful medium. Photographs are used for scientific and forensic evidence for their supposed truthfulness. Even Edgar Allan Poe thought daguerreotypes disclosed “a more absolute truth, a more perfect identity of aspect with the thing represented.”

So why did Charles Traub call his new book of photographs “Taradiddle”?

“A taradiddle is by definition a petty lie, a little falsehood or trifling told often to amuse or embellish a story,” he said. “As our world is full of them, seen and witnessed through advertising, P.R., propaganda, flirtations, staged events and presentations of all sorts, I simply came to the conclusion that even the straightest of photographs made in real-world witness was also such.”

Mr. Traub — who established the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media department at the School of Visual Arts where he is now chair — also believes that “the frame of the photograph recontextualizes everything around it.” His book, published this month by Damiani, is a collection of random moments, mostly in public spaces.

Mr. Traub’s taradiddles appear not just within the layers of his frame but in his careful combination of images afterward, a practice similar to that of Nathan Lyons, who thought bringing two photos together on a spread created an entirely different third meaning. Using scale, depth of field, and ironic pairings of subjects, Mr. Traub creates a whimsical world.

A woman in a polka-dot shirt passes by a Dalmatian, both appearing as tonal twins. A man casually leans on a tank while children play on the gun turret. Nobody seems to mind. Two photographs of very large trees share a spread, one is in a pot, the other in the ground. Next to the humans in the frame, both trees look absurdly large.

“I’ve always been interested in humor,” Mr. Traub said, “and I think our medium is sort of devoid of humor.”

Yet Mr. Traub, who has worked almost exclusively in color since the mid-1970s and with a digital camera since the late 1990s, doesn’t set out to photograph these casual absurdities. He doesn’t shoot with any one theme or group in mind. And he never constructs pictures. He’s interested in what he calls “real-world witness,” or collecting his observations from reality.

“I just decided, be free,” he said. “Photograph whatever you see and respond to and it’ll fall together in some meaningful way.”

That freedom, and the passage of time, led him to sequence about four years ago. Using a cheap printer and a pin board, he examined relationships between photographs. His assistant at the time suggested the word taradiddles.

“I loved the way it sounded,” he said. “It just fit.”

Mr. Traub was born in 1945 in Louisville, Kentucky. Like so many photographers, he received his first camera from his father. But it was at the University of Illinois, where he majored in English, that he was first moved by a photograph, a local landscape by Art Sinsabaugh. So he enrolled in a photography course. Mr. Sinsabaugh, along with Aaron Siskind, would later become his teachers at the Institute for Design in Chicago. His first solo show was in the late 1960s at Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s small optometrist shop gallery in Kentucky, which helped establish Mr. Traub in the art world.

Now, in addition to his work at the School of Visual Arts, Mr. Traub is focused on combing through his digital files, looking for more whimsical connections.

“Comedy, in a way, is much harder than tragedy to perform,” he said. “And I think we need to deal with our social traumas with a little levity.”

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