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'Word on the Street' collects Richard Nagler's word pictures

The photographer has spent many years shooting scenes of a word and a person in the same frame, the two of which have a relevance to each other.

January 02, 2011|By Leah Ollman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A photo titled "Time" from the book "Word on the Street" by Richard Nagler.
A photo titled "Time" from the book "Word on the Street"… (Richard Nagler, Richard…)

To Allen Ginsberg, the photographs of Richard Nagler brought to mind the concentrated, evocative form of haiku. Both a poet and photographer himself, he called the images "picture poems."

Each of Nagler's images contains a single word on a sign, a T-shirt, gravestone or theater marquee, and a single human subject standing or passing nearby. "Love" hovers above a homeless man sheathed in a blanket. "Beef" is carved into the wooden pen separating a hefty steer from a comically robust shirtless man standing alongside.

A young girl in pigtails and sneakers strides beside a wall pronouncing "now." "Water" pools atop a pedestrian's umbrella.

More than 70 of Nagler's photographs were published in November by Heyday in "Word on the Street." In his foreword, art historian Peter Selz situates the work within multiple traditions that merge the visual and verbal, including Cubist painting and collage, Pop art, conceptualism and street photography. Nagler, 63, has been making these poignant, playful, punning pictures since 1977, when he saw the word "time" spelled out in freestanding letters against an old building in Oakland, near where he lives. Just behind the sign, an elderly woman was peering out a window. The woman retreated before Nagler could capture the image, but he returned again and again, until he got the picture he wanted, one that resonates with melancholy and mortality.

"I knew immediately I wanted to replicate the power of that image," Nagler says. For the next three decades, he hunted down similarly synergistic combinations in the Bay Area, where he runs a company manufacturing skylights, and on travels to New York, Las Vegas, Tel Aviv, London and Paris.

Finding words in isolation amid the visual clutter of the urban landscape is his greatest challenge, he says, especially words with some significance — "art," "infinity" or "evolution," for instance, as opposed to "mufflers" or "donuts." When he spots a promising one, he might make a picture immediately, but more typically, he'll return to the site and wait for hours, days or even weeks for a lone individual to pass within the frame, someone who fleshes out and humanizes the word, someone for whom the word serves as telling caption.

"I'm always looking for the perfect image that says something about life, about where I am at this stage, what I'm thinking, what's going on. I was a young man when I started this. It's my equivalent of a diary."

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