When I think of New York City, many characteristics come to mind: toughness, elegance, vulgarity, hard times, commerce, modernity, diversity. But romance? Mystery? Fantasy? I wouldn’t normally associate these words with New York. That is why, to me, Bill Travis’s New York City images are so unusual. They focus on the very things that generally escape notice.
Fig. 1: Bill Travis, New York, West Side, photographic transfer on board with pastel and mixed media, 2006.
New York has a long tradition of representing itself. Visit the lobby of any major Art Deco building and you’re likely to find an image of the city. Rockefeller Center has one of the best, with José Maria Sert’s planes towering overhead in a glorious celebration of modern life circa 1930.
Turning to photography, flip through Weegee’s photos to see the city’s violent underbelly, or Berenice Abbott’s for razor-sharp views of the city’s canyons. Look to Michael Wesely for ghostlike, long-term exposures. When I look at Bill Travis’s work, I see something different and the closest parallels I can find are with photographs over a hundred years old.
Like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, Travis is a Pictorialist; he blurs images, builds on rich light and dark contrasts, plays with asymmetry, and creates a timeless quality that transcends the accidents of the here and now.
His connection to late nineteenth-century painting is even stronger: I think of artists like Whistler, whose images of London are more about color harmonies than topographical features. Travis has even called some of his views “Nocturnes,” one of Whistler’s favorite titles.
Fig. 2: Bill Travis, Nocturne in silver and blue, photographic transfer on board with pastel and mixed media, 2006.
What are we to make of this retrospective quality? In reading his biography, I note that Travis was formerly a professor of medieval art. I suspect that this art-historical background has informed his work. (Indeed, his work on the nude often involves transferring images onto gilt boards, a technique reminiscent of the Byzantine icon.) If he was just imitating earlier art, however, his pictures would not have the vibrancy they do. Clearly there are other things at work, of a more psychological cast, perhaps. A return to the past implies we’re dealing with an artist who has a complicated relationship with the present. From this perspective, the backward glance may be Travis’s way of rejecting the sense of irony that pervades much contemporary art. What we get instead is a sensuality which has long been out of favor. Indeed, the romance, mystery, and fantasy of his New York images are qualities we associate with the human body. What I find in Travis’s imagery, then, is not a return to the past per se, but a dialog between past and present that transforms the city into a metaphor of the body. The colors, the surface treatment, the night environment are so many invitations to touch. New York is the perfect lover.
Fig. 3: Bill Travis, New York gold, photographic transfer on board with pastel and mixed media, 2006.
The novel technique of these images—photographic transfers on painted board with mixed media—enhances the tactile quality. Difficult to appreciate on a computer screen, the chalk pastel he’s used for most of them gives the surface an evanescent, powdery quality. In others, he’s preferred a coat of wax, partly obscuring the image while giving it a matte finish. Perhaps we need to invent a new word for his work. It’s neither photography nor painting, but a combination of both. The technique is never an end in itself, however, but a means to express a deeply felt and original vision.
Fig. 4: Bill Travis, Old and new, photographic transfer on board with wax and mixed media, 2006.
I note from Travis’s website (www.billtravisphoto.com) that the size of his work ranges from the miniscule (1 1/2 X 2 inches) to the large (3 X 4 feet) and it’s interesting to reflect on the way scale affects our understanding. Small pieces bring out an intimacy, while larger pieces enhance the subjects’ monumentality. The New York series, where each image measures 12 X 16 inches, is poised between both worlds, at once private and grand.
Fig. 5: Bill Travis, Once upon a time, photographic transfer on board with pastel and mixed media, 2006.
The New York pictures constitute a highly unusual series that straddles the territory between painting and photography, raises questions about past and present, and invites us to think about the city as a human body. I look forward to seeing where his work will lead us next.
Fig. 6: Bill Travis, Edgar’s view, photographic transfer on board with pastel and mixed media, 2006.