The artist and his muse

Fairfield residents report on a life shared in photography (with slideshow)

Ina Trager has become the inspiration and focus for the photography career of her husband, Philip. Philip Trager's work is featured at the Fairfield Museum & History Center through July 21. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

‘Ina Rockport VI, 2008’ shows Fairfield photographer Philip Trager using a mirror to capture an image of his wife and inspriation, Ina.

‘Eiko and Koma I,’ 1993, by Philip Trager

“Images 2013,” the Fairfield Museum and History Center’s annual photography event, features a retrospective of artist Philip Trager. Renowned for his photographs of architecture and dance, Trager has had his work exhibited around the world, and it is in collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian.

Trager’s work is on display through July 21 at the Fairfield Museum, 370 Beach Road.

Trager has always had a passion for photography, and began taking pictures as a teenager growing up in Bridgeport. It was around then that he met his muse, although he wasn’t quite aware of it at the time. He and Ina Shulkin became friends during high school. They dated through college (he went to Wesleyan, she to Smith), and he proposed on her graduation day. They married and moved to New York, where Trager obtained a law degree from Columbia University in 1960. They settled in Fairfield, where they have lived for 53 years.

At first, the demands of two young children and his law career were too pressing to allow him to photograph, but Trager found himself thinking about it constantly. Finally, in 1966 he set up a darkroom in his home and began photographing “with a vengeance,” he said.

“I felt as if I had two vocations,” Trager added. “I would spend 45 hours a week working as a lawyer and then 15 or 20 hours a week devoted to photography.”

Photography became a family affair. Nearly every weekend and vacation were spent behind the camera. Family outings consisted of packing the kids into the car and spending time wherever Dad was photographing, and for two years they crisscrossed Connecticut while he photographed classic New England architecture.

“In the beginning I was sitting there, looking after the kids and a little annoyed that this was the way I was spending my free time,” Ina said, recalling her
initial frustration.

“I wasn’t fitting the mold I was supposed to be,” Philip admitted. “I was living a different life. Ina came on board with a lawyer, and it became a different life.”

It was a life that over time became more appealing to her, especially as the children became older.

“It was a lot of compromise,” she said. “I always say that love is the glue. You can put up with a lot if you have that. Eventually I got into it and became more involved.”

Involved often meant physical work: lugging cameras and tripods, waiting in the street, loading film holders, handling lenses.

“If you are on the sidelines watching, it’s not as interesting,” Ina said. “If you put your energy into it, it becomes something you can believe in.”

Being so close to the work also brought Ina more in tune with Philip’s aesthetic.

“When he first started photographing, I don’t think I quite understood,” she said. “I wasn’t looking at architecture as much. I love furniture and design. I couldn’t quite see the emotional reaction he was getting. As time went on, I started to look like he was looking.”

During the 1970s, Trager began to photograph the architecture of New York.

“We would make a weekend of it,” Ina reminisced. “It was wonderful. We would take our break in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel. Sometimes we’d even fall asleep there, we were so tired … but at night we would go through the Lincoln Tunnel to a Howard Johnson’s in New Jersey, where they had a great restaurant with a jazz band on the roof and we would dance.”

“We’ve gotten a lot of pleasure from photography,” Philip said, “gotten to know a lot of interesting people, traveled to many different places.”

They both loved Paris, where he captured the contrasts of what would become “Changing Paris.”

It was Italy, though, that stirred their souls. Ina remembered the music, and the light. Philip photographed the Venetian villas of the architect Palladio.

“The trip I loved best was the Palladio,” he said. “I remember the feeling of flow. You are challenged but not stressed. Time flies by.”

“It was truly the most romantic place,” Ina said.

One morning Philip woke up thinking, “Dance is the right thing to photograph.” He photographed dancers out of doors, collaborating with such choreographers as Mark Morris and Eiko and Koma Otake, capturing in motion and natural light the beauty of the body in motion. This led to another series photographing close-ups of dancers’ faces.

Each project leads him to the next. Each also results in a book; 10 monographs of his work have been published to critical acclaim.

“I have always loved books,” Philip said.

Philip stopped practicing law 20 years ago, devoting himself full-time to his passion. He has worked in digital and in color since 2007, a sea change.

His subject? Ina, who was at first more than a little nervous.

“Phil said to me one day, ‘I have an idea. I want to take you in color.’ I said, ‘Oh! With the wrinkles and such?’ You worry about all those things,” Ina recalled.

But she trusts that “people look beyond the facade to the soul rather than the surface.”

This was not the first time Ina had modeled for her husband. During the 1980s they would steal away to Fire Island for weekends, where he created intimate portraits. Now, 25 years later, he turns his lens on her again.

This new work, “Photographing Ina,” is more complex; touching on perception and the act of photographing itself. Trager takes his cue from Shakespeare and holds “the mirror up to nature,” literally. He uses mirrors as an integral part of his compositions, exploring concepts of image and ideal, light and shadow, reality and illusion.

“The camera is seeing from one place,” he explained. “The mirrors are causing other things to happen. These new images reveal what the camera sees and things that it doesn’t.”

Sometimes the photographer himself will appear in a mirror.

What the camera most often captures is a couple: the photographer and his model/assistant/muse. It is a wonderful depiction of their shared life in photography.

“Ina says I photographed her because she was handy,” he said with a laugh, before becoming serious again. “I say it was a matter of the heart.”

Information about “Images 2013” and Trager’s photography may be found at fairfieldhistory.org and philiptrager.com.

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