After working on Wall Street for more than 25 years, Ira Wagner began studying photography in 2008, with specific focus on the urban landscape. Currently the Executive Director of the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ, Ira has been evolving his photographic practice through various projects including Superior Apartments and Houseraising. Featured in our Home Views exhibition, Ira’s interest in urban history and design marks his Twinhouses of the Great Northeast as a powerful addition to the show. Exploring themes of a common border, the American Dream, and the human inclination to mark and delineate one’s space, Ira’s series is a must see. To learn more from Ira about his art-making practice and source of inspiration, we asked him a few questions.
Tell us how you first connected to the Griffin Museum.
I connected with the Griffin Museum through meeting Paula at Review Santa Fe in 2019. She is a wonderful and responsive reviewer and it was a pleasure to speak with her. I was thrilled that she had an immediate response to my project and wanted to include it in an exhibition at the Griffin.
How do you involve photography in your everyday life? Can you tell us about any images or artists that have caught your attention recently?
Photography has been very important to me since I retired from Wall Street in 2008. Actually, I had been interested in photography since I was young. I delivered the newspaper in junior high school and saved my nickel and dime tips and bought my first camera. But after retiring, I began classes at ICP in New York which led me to get an MFA degree in the Limited Residency Program at the University of Hartford, graduating in 2013. From there, I continued working on my own projects and also taught at Monmouth University. At the same time, I made frequent expeditions as part of my exploration of the urban landscape. Since Covid, staying closer to home, I’ve focused on frequent walks in the woods in my neighborhood. My experience with photography also led me to my current position as the Executive Director of the Montclair Art Museum. Through that, I recently had the experience of looking through a large archive of prints by Joel Meyrowitz which was being offered to us as a donation – it was an incredible experience. I’ve also been able to participate in acquisitions of photographs for the Museum’s collection.
Please tell us a little about your series, Twinhouses of the Great Northeast and how it was conceived.
I was photographing in Philadelphia as part of an exploration of the area around the Northeast Corridor rail line between New York and Washington and wandered into Northeast Philadelphia, also known as the Great Northeast. I noticed the twinhouse structures and how each side had slight variations; I was particularly struck by one where the lawn was carefully mowed on one side but overgrown on the other. As someone who is interested in urban history and development I began to look further into this area and this type of housing and found that it was a common form of housing built for people moving out of center city Philadelphia. It became clear that these houses were built over an extended period of time, some pre-WW II and all the way through the 1970s. They had varying materials, sizes and architectural styles. I made numerous trips to the area and walked around many different neighborhoods, noticing the distinguishing characteristics of each. I looked for the best examples of how one side contrasted with the other. Some of my favorites include one where the entire front yard of the house is blocked by a tall hedge while on the other side, the front yard has a patio table, umbrella and chairs. In another, a huge motorboat is parked in one of the driveways. How people demarcate their own space is an underlying theme of this work.
Has there been a Griffin Museum exhibition that has particularly engaged or moved you?
I quite like the current exhibition A Place I Never Knew by Tira Khan. The images create a compelling portrait of a place in which few travelers would stop. I feel connected to that urge to photograph places like that. I had one opportunity to travel to India and would love to spend more time photographing there. I spent one day photographing art deco apartment buildings in Mumbai – a surprising find. For my MFA thesis, I included art deco buildings on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, another place that not many travelers explore!
What is your favorite place to escape to?
I don’t really have a favorite single place to escape to. Instead, my escape is traveling some place new and getting to explore. I like getting beyond the sights that most travelers see and find a place off the beaten track that feels like I’ve discovered the essence of the location; then I love capturing it with a photograph.
What is a book, song or visual obsession you have at the moment?
Visually, I love ruins of any sort. I recently acquired the book Ruins by Koudelka which I frequently return to. I also love the work of German photographer Ursula Schulz-Dornburg. She has several projects focusing on ruins in the Middle East and Asia; one I particularly like is a series of photographs of a rail line built by the Germans in Saudi Arabia. A few years ago, I used a grant from the New Jersey State Arts Council to visit the Anasazi ruins at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Although it is a National Park Service site, it is quite remote with no food or services; the road to the site is unpaved. I stayed in a rented RV and got to explore and photograph for several days – it was truly magical.
If you could be in a room with anyone to have a conversation, who would it be and what would you talk about?
I would love to have had the opportunity to meet and study with the Bechers. It was exciting for me when I first learned about their work and then all the photographers that learned from them, including one of my favorites, Elger Esser.