- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2009

Grand country estates and humble urban churches are pictured at the National Building Museum to reveal the versatility of classical architecture for rich and poor. The pair of photography exhibitions departs from the typically detached approach to architectural photography with interpretative images both gorgeous and gritty.

Of the two shows, the more conventionally beautiful surveys the career of Philip Trager, a Connecticut lawyer turned photographer. Since the 1970s, Mr. Trager has shot black-and-white photos of Manhattan skyscrapers, New England homes and Parisian bridges.

His particular skill is to animate this static subject matter through unusual angles and the play of light and shadow on architectural facades. From Edward Hopper-like scenes of brownstones to a close-up of the adobe church made famous by Georgia O’Keeffe, his photos convey an old-fashioned, painterly sensibility.

One of the more abstract images sets New York’s spiraling Guggenheim Museum against the sliver of a neighboring structure. A block of sky on the left side of the picture suggests another building rather than a negative space.

Of Mr. Trager’s architectural photos, the most elegant depict the 16th-century Italian villas designed by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Shot in the mid-1980s, these images emphasize the integral relationship between the stately mansions and the surrounding landscape.

Several of them curiously focus on a tree rising through the center of the picture. The vertical line of the trunk bisects the building in the background to call attention to the symmetry of its facade.

Mr. Trager’s formal photographs of Palladian villas are accompanied by images of a seemingly opposite subject matter, modern dance. The photographer manages to connect the twisting, leaping figures to the stillness of stone and brick by shooting the dancers outdoors and freezing them in motion.

The combination of dance and architectural imagery reminds the viewer of the link between the human body and its manifestation in buildings through proportions and ornament. Mr. Trager’s panorama of the Mark Morris troupe turns the naked dancers into a frieze from one of his shots of classical architecture.

In more recent scenes of Paris, the photographer treats statues in the same way as the live dancers. One of the most arresting depicts a horn-blowing nymph leaning off the side of a steel bridge as if warning the passing boat.

Mr. Trager makes even his most inert subjects come alive through the rich tones and textures of his pictures. An annotated print along with before-and-after touch-ups demonstrate the photographer’s involvement in the darkroom “as a second opportunity to work with light,” according to the wall text.

Three years ago, Mr. Trager stopped printing his own pictures and now shoots digital prints in color. The exhibit only presents one example, but that is enough to suggest this photographer is continuing to explore his art in fresh directions.

Down the hallway from this show, the second exhibition switches to colorful street photography by Chilean-born Camilo Jose Vergara. For more than three decades, Mr. Vergara has devoted his career to documenting what he calls “permanent ghettos,” poor minority neighborhoods in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, New York and other American cities.

This exhibit narrows his viewpoint to inner-city storefront churches while revealing the remarkable variety within this single building type.

Some of the worship halls are situated within structures built for other purposes. A Kentucky Fried Chicken shack in Newark, N.J., is now home to a Pentecostal church, and a 1920s beaux-arts bank in Camden, N.J., is used as a Moorish Science Temple.

Others are lovingly built with carefully placed architectural elements and handmade signs. The grand but skewed archways of a Chicago Baptist church unintentionally resemble a fashionable deconstructivist design. In Detroit, a more modest house of worship is simply lettered with the slogan “Pure in Heart.”

Mr. Vergara shoots these buildings straight on with the detachment of an anthropologist studying an exotic tribe. Some of his pictures include preachers and their congregants, and multiracial representations of Christ in murals and artwork.

The photographer often returns to the same storefront churches to record the changes made to them over time. In the exhibit, a grouping of six photos taken from 1981 to 2009 traces the evolution of a former Chicago movie theater into the Holy Raiders Revival Church and Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church as the buildings around it are demolished.

The survival of such churches in the country’s poorest places, Mr. Vergara says, “speaks to resilience” of both buildings and people. It underscores the exhibit’s uplifting message of spiritual perseverance in the face of social neglect and physical decay.

In some of the pictures, it’s hard to tell there is a place for the congregation at all. The First Baptist Church of Hammond, Ind., is housed within an appliance center plastered with big signs for Philco, Whirlpool and Motorola.

Other photos underscore the makeshift nature of the storefront church by depicting temporary structures such as an inflatable church in Gary, Ind. An image of an outdoor sanctuary in Detroit simply shows plastic chairs set around a cross in a park frequented by the homeless.

Faith, Mr. Vergara suggests, can take root almost anywhere.

WHAT: “Form and Movement: Photographs by Philip Trager”; “Storefront Churches: Photographs by Camilo Jose Vergara”

WHERE: National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 29 (“Storefront Churches”) and Jan. 3, 2010 (“Form and Movement”)

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/272-2448

WEB SITE: www.nbm.org

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