Trevor Traina Collection of Photographs At The De Young

André Bazin claims that “we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually  re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space. Photography enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of this transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction.”


I’ve never really considered photography as art. I’ve always seen photography as a documentation of the subject at hand with the intention and message of the documentation   left open for the observer to interpret. To see it as art seems almost blasphemous. Don’t worry...I said almost. The camera is a recording machine. The mechanical act of snapping a moment in time has always intrigued me, but then again anything remotely attached to the concept of time intrigues me.

Trevor Traina and Photojournalist Alec Soth

So, you can understand my curiosity when Lipstick and Politics was invited to tour Trevor Traina’s personal collection of photographs at the De Young before it opened to the Public. The exhibit, unabashedly titled, “Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection,” is a cheeky nod to ‘reel to reel’ — the outdated mode of documentation.

It wasn’t’ just that I wanted to see why someone would spend millions of dollars collecting pictures, especially now that my instagram photos might just rival some of the collection (ok maybe not). I wanted to see why Trevor chose these pictures. Was there true interrogation and reductive reasoning that lead to each acquisition or was this the fanciful hobby of a well-to-do entrepreneur?

Alec Soth Mellisa, 2005

The press release said the collection is based on “the documentary impulse’ and realism. I can see that the collection is a documentation of a series of ideas but I don’t see it as a documentary. What I mean by this is when one sees the body of work by Alec Soth as it’s meant to be seen, a series of pictures that tell a story of the bigger concept or idea, that to me is documentary photography. A continuation on one idea.   The overtones of Alec Soth’s thought provoking Niagara Falls project really overtook me with intensity, seeing the lone picture outside of his series of the bride sitting alone in her white wedding gown gave me only a small idea of what Soth was trying to say. I wanted more…more depth, more loneliness…more story.

The acquisition of this particular piece titled Melissa,2005 by Trevor is a score. This is Soth's best shot. The photograph did take me deeper into the conventions of society and social illusions. Soth, who was in attendance to explain his work went into a introspective philosophical description of the work and his desire to capture love and longing. As you can imagine, I fell in love not only with the idea of capturing something so elusive but also for   a   story of longing trapped in a brief moment of time.

The social significance of Cindy Sherman’s somewhat creepy biographical identity exploration is fascinating. I was impressed that the Traina collection dove directly into observations of reality that need to be questioned. And it is   the strong works by women and of women that will ask those questions. The impressions of Sherman’s mind are peppered throughout her work as social commentary about what it is to be a woman.

And as we all know, there is no objective creative expression, even in so-called the realism of photojournalism. Every photograph is formed by the the eye of the creator and eventually the observer.

I see the Traina collection as an exquisite aesthetic experience. It’s a brilliant collection of truthful tension in uncompromising honesty. He’s done a great job of acquiring some incredibly significant historical pictures. The photography showcased is a realistic expression that creates social dialogue due to the nature of that ‘truth’ that it begs to capture.There are so many photographs that jump off the walls to a conversation. One that I’m sure we’ve all seen in some context or another is by Diane Arbus called “Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J.,”. The picture was bought by Trevor at Sotheby’s in New York for $478,400, the highest price paid for an Arbus.

Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J

All in all, the collection is worth seeing. The emotional connection between the photographer’s reality and the reality we see is worth a ponder- standing in front of the Identical Twins, I couldn’t help but wonder how something so innocent could convey the quandaries of haunting existentialism. Maybe it’s the uncertainty of where those twins might be, but there, right on the wall, sits their image in full view- so real and alive.


The de Young Museum is located in Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco. An accompanying 135-page book for Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection features over 85 plates and includes a foreword and introduction by Curator Cox and an essay by Art Historian Moore. For information about museum hours and ticket prices, call (415) 750-3600 or visit Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection runs through Sept. 16.