Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Q & A with Charles Harbutt

Charles Harbutt, Photo by Bill Jay
Charles Harbutt is a photographer, teacher, and author based in New York. His show Departures and Arrivals is currently on exhibit at The Center For Creative Photography in Tucson.

Can you tell me briefly about your very early experiences with photography? Were you drawn to it as a child? Or later? Can you remember what appealed to you about it?

I was drawn to magic until I went to high school. My school had a championship basketball team and very high spirits. If you weren't on the team you were supposed to go and cheer. That didn't attract me but I noticed the photographers were down on the floor looking very official and voila! I think it was very appealing to see a picture of mine in the Regis OWL with my credit. I existed. The world also existed in the pictures.

What do you mean drawn to magic? You wanted to be a magician? To do magic tricks?

Yes, I did magic for my grammar school shows. Illusions. Things you thought you saw but hadn't. Perception.

Do you see any linkage between that interest and your later photography? 

Magic, image and imagination are all from the same root word. 
Image: Representation, reflection, aura, the way you are seen. 
Imagination: Picture, See in your mind’s eye, Dream up, Conjure up. 
Magic: Dreamlike, trickery, illusion, sleight of hand, artifice, mystery, charm, allure.

For me it's about perception and transformation. B/W changes what you see. Look at Atget, Weston's Peppers, Kertesz. It's sort of traditional.

Well, Atget had no choice but to use b/w at the time he was shooting. I wonder if he would use color today. Was he interested in transforming reality --doing magic tricks-- or documenting it?

All of the above (transforming reality --doing magic tricks-- or documenting) simultaneously. Incidentally, color photography existed while Atget was shooting. I doubt he would have been daunted by color, but I think he was after something different than what passed for art at his time. 

But it was quite difficult to use. I think what I'm saying is his choice to use b/w was due as much to technology as to creative decision. Maybe. Have you done much color photography? All I've seen by you is b/w. 

SHOULDN'T WE STICK WITH WHAT I DO, INSTEAD OF ASKING ME TO EXPLAIN WHAT I DON'T? I don't shoot fashion. Is that bad? I shoot very few portraits, but lots of people. Even fewer nudes because I rarely see them in the course of a day and then I'm usually otherwise occupied. Landscapes when they're there.

Sure, you're right. I was asking about color just to get a sense of what draws you to photography. I think the choice to use b/w says more about you than your decision not to shoot fashion. Incidentally 95% of what I shoot is b/w so I don't mean the question in any pejorative sense. I get the appeal. 

Much of the work I did in journalism and commercially was color. My personal work has been primarily B&W. For its transformative value. I know the colors aren't true, but to me they are a distraction from how I want to talk. I shoot color a bit digitally, but it's too pretty for what I talk about.

How did your parents react to your nascent interest in photography? 

They were okay with it. My mother had been an artist/designer for a baking company. So she was all for me. My father liked me better when I caught for the school baseball team (grammar school). They kind of let me do whatever I wanted as long as I kept my grades up and didn't spit on the floor. And then of course I started to win prizes and they were proud.

Woman and Train, Providence, RI, 1976

Did they understand what you were trying to say in your photos? Did you have anyone early on that really "got" your work, that helped mentor or push you in the right direction?

No. The only help I got was I was allowed to join the local Camera Club, but they were mired in their monthly Salon with all the accompanying rules, with each half point attached, and were deeply Pictorialist – no utilitarian objects – telephone poles, etc. That was hardly a help. And then at age 13 I hardly had anything to say; I just was trying to make the pictures come out.

People helped me technically. But my era was before people interested in photography went to school. There wasn't really a THEORY of photography. That's just what cameras did. Oh there were the pictorialists, but they were just one bunch. There was Weegee and other freelance newspaper people. LIFE and LOOK and the European magazines were just beginning. Magnum hadn't started yet. It was great. We were free of all nos. You could take any picture you wanted any way you wanted. Weegee's distortions were shown in the same story as Kertesz. There were no shoulds that I listened  to. We were free of all that jargon, humbug - the word is cant, not can't. I feel a little sorry for my students on that score. Some are actually trying to learn the "rules."  One girl actually broke into tears when I told her that there are no rules. Different times. Photography is not a religion; it's not accounting; it's not based on logic only. There are no commandments and only a few would-be popes. This freedom is very seductive.

What photographic advice do you think you'd give your teen self if you could somehow go back in time? Just one nontechnical lesson.

Funny. I spent this morning with one of my teenager grandsons who's a painter, sculptor, graffiti artist and photographer who wants to know more. What I told him is to take any pictures he wants any way he wants. Just remember it's what the camera sees and when it sees it that matters. And find some other way to make a living.

In the introduction to Travelog you say "Photography is not art". Can you elaborate on that? Do you still think that's true? Can photography be art or are they two separate disciplines?

Photography means more to me than painting. When I look at Lucien Freud’s enormously moving portraits with their sad, sad eyes, I’m moved and then I think of what sadness must have engulfed Freud. When I see a photograph like that I think what a life the subject must be living. Art is what Jeff Koons does. With him I think of P.T. Barnum – “You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all the people, all the time.”

For me today, photography is better than art: it’s in touch (or can be) with reality. Man Ray said the same thing, incidentally. This is a medium that can incorporate time, place, chance events, and can be dated precisely to when it was made. Painting to me is the relationship between the painter and the materials. There normally is something else in a photograph beyond just its maker and the medium: can we call that real life?

In primitive caves you find handprints, images where the thing itself makes its picture. This is also a very good definition for photography. It’s a way of saying, “I am here. This is what my world looks like.” 

Head Shop, a recent photo by Charles Harbutt
A related question, since much of contemporary photography has been pulled into the fine art world and influenced by it, what is your general impression of fine art photography today? Which photographers do you like? Which ones, or which styles, do you dislike?

I like some European photographers very much. Antoine d’Agata, Brigitte Grignet, Morten Anderson, Daido Moriyama in Japan. I was at a Turkish festival last fall and met some wonderful Kurds, a few Turks, Armenians, Russians, Poles; they actually make pictures in idiosyncratic ways. But there are some Americans whose work I like: Mary Ellen Mark, Jeff Jacobson, Joan Liftin, Sylvia Plachy, Andrea Stern. Most of what I see in this country is neo-Victorian, referential to some words (frequently supplied) like the Romantics and their prayers (Kasebier’s “Blessed is She Amongst Women,” etc.) The compositions are boring, center-loaded, symmetrical. But I’m told that the digital revolution has greatly improved the technical quality of pornography – except for the fearful forays you see in galleries.  Pathetic.

You know there was a theory about criticism in the Victorian era: find out what the artist intended to do, then judge the work. Did it do it? That approach pretty much describes a college class and makes life very easy for the teacher (curator, critic). They don’t have to actually confront the work. They just read the statement.

How would you critique your own work by that standard? 

I don’t. 

What do you intend your photos to do? Do they do it?

In the introduction to departures I said: “What I like best is that however the picture is made, it’s a surprise to me when I see the photo come up in the developer.” Is that an intention? Sometimes the pictures do do it – surprise me. In Travelog I said: “I don’t take pictures; pictures take me.” Some of this may come from journalism where one tries to find out what is, not look for a way to state some preconceived notion of what it is.

In reading some of your online essays I sense you grew dissatisfied with photojournalism at a certain point mid-career. Do you think photography is best suited to tell stories, similar to a reporter describing events in writing? Or is photography best aimed at non-story telling, just images for their own sake? 

Both. Whenever it does something well, that’s what it was for. There are no universals except in movies. And churches.

Are you still actively photographing?  


Are those photographs online or available somewhere? 

There were some in departures and arrivals. You may be able to find others online courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography.

The CCP site does not list your photos by date, so it's hard to determine which ones are recent. Can you link to a few of them?

No, I think that’s a waste of time. All of my time is present to me. Or think of Einstein and relativity. Or become a Mayan, as I wrote in Progreso: “I think I was seduced by Mayan notions of progress: that time is cyclical; things don’t get better and better day-by-day, they just swirl around like dust in the street.”

How does their archiving system work with your shooting now? Do you send them current negatives as you sift through them? 

Yes, although I keep negs here until I’ve made whatever prints I want. But they’re very good at FEDEXing me anything I ask for. I keep scans of pictures I like and put the negative # in the file info section of Photoshop so I know exactly what to ask for and the archivist there, Leslie Squyres, keeps them stored that way (as are the prints).

How do you think they're different than the photos you shot 20 or 40 years ago?

They’re what I did last week. Some are better, so you probably won’t see the old ones from me again. Others are worse. You’ll not likely ever see them. I honestly don’t think about my work in those terms; any answer to me is meaningless. As I said earlier: “vat vuz, vuz.”

Can you briefly describe your photographic process? What do you look for? What captures your attention? How do you size up and capture scenes?

I empty my head of any conscious agenda and shoot whatever taps me on the shoulder. I’ve written about my process, most recently in the introduction to departures and arrivals:  

“Gradually my pictures became more about what I felt in my day-to-day wanderings and not so much about subject.  They started to be about the shapes and forms I was seeing and drawn to, suggesting a content different from their subject matter.

“Such pictures were like gifts from a buried self, glimpses of who I was and what I felt.

"Photography for me, when I’m working well, is all point and shoot.  I’ve tried a lot of things, some in the darkroom. But what I like best is that however the picture is made, it’s a surprise to me when I see the photo come up in the developer. My all-time favorite was taken on the Rue du Depart near Gare Montparnasse railroad station in Paris because it was so different from what I remember shooting. It was at once a departure and an arrival.”

You've been quoted "I never go where anybody else goes." Is that still true? Do you consciously seek out nontraveled locations? It seems very difficult now, or at least harder than it was 50 years ago.

If a crowd is on the street, I go down a different street. Nobody can see the world the way my camera does when I’m shooting, because no one can put a camera there or probably push the shutter at the same precise moment.

Which subject matter do you think tends to generate stronger photos, familiar scenes or exotic ones?

Both. As Garry Winogrand said: “Nothing is more mysterious than a fact clearly stated.” On the other hand, most mysteries should just stay as mysteries, well or poorly stated. They're already facts.

How has your experience as a teacher affected you as a photographer?

What I learn as a teacher is what not to do (most of the times it’s what everyone else is doing).

You teach a class called "Instinct and Metaphor". Can you briefly describe what that class teaches? 

Sure. Here’s the syllabus

PUPH 2545 A CRN 6585 Spring 2013

Course Description: 
Most photographs, whether student, fine art or commercial are made by the traditional art school method: define concept, a pre-visualization, then execute that vision with taste and elegance in some medium. The goal is TOTAL control. For over a century now, artists in almost every medium have disputed this approach: John Cage in music, Martha Graham in dance, the Surrealists and Dadaists with automatic writing and chance juxtapositions, William Burroughs notebooks, Jackson Pollock’s dribbles.

In photography, the box camera originally had no viewfinder, which made such control impossible. Inspired by the weird, but inventive compositions that resulted, photographers using its successor camera the 35mm have explored this new approach and some of their discoveries were adapted by their view camera brethren. In their attempt to describe their approach, some photographers say the proper state of mind is to be as blank as the piece of film or as open to discovering images as the lens, which makes pictures all the time. The photographer chooses which ones to preserve on film. This method introduces chance, spontaneity and time into the visual media in a new way. And this has often led to metaphor, as in Steichen’s equivalents. This class will study such spontaneous photographers as they have worked in fine arts, documentary and commercial photography. But primarily it will aim at helping students to produce photographs by this method. 

Course Outline:

We moderns trust the pragmatic, logical, “rational” mind more than the intuitive and poetic, even when making art. In schools, we are asked to do assignments, to take a problem and solve it, to execute a concept in some medium. As photographers, we go out “looking for pictures.” That often means looking for moments in the world around us that remind us of pictures we’ve seen in coffee table books or chic magazines. In a way we’re looking at the world with blinders.

Like our eyes, cameras can see and make pictures of everything. You can use the camera, as the poet William Burroughs did, to discover what’s on your mind, even your subconscious. In the process, you might discover ideas you’re more comfortable with or ways of making pictures.

instinct - 1. a. The innate, complex, and normally adaptive aspect of behavior. b. A strong impulse or motivation 

metaphor - A figure of speech in which a term is transferred from the object it ordinarily designates to an object it may designate only by implicit comparison or analogy, as in the phrase "evening of life"

“More profoundly and at times negatively, the way art is experienced has changed. Conceptual Art has encouraged the assumption that every object, every picture, even every abstract painting tells a story – that it carries within it some kind of narrative, meaning or “subtext.” Equally ingrained is the more limiting expectation that all this meaning is primarily intellectual and easily reduced to language, that art as an entity is completely explainable. We owe to conceptualism years of one-lined artworks in all media – the “I get it” school of esthetic experience. This condition has caused a permanent confusion of content with subject matter, to the continuing detriment of both content and form. Too often, art that lacks an explicit subject is thought to without content and dismissed.” 
--Roberta Smith, The New York Times

How essential is chance in your own photographic practice?


Why did you wait so long between publishing your books? 

I didn’t know I had one. I had some pictures that seemed to make sense together, that "worked", but maybe just to me.

What was the impetus behind last year's book departures and arrivals?  How did it come about?

I had had a disastrous experience with a French editor and publisher who tried to do a retrospective of my work. But his notion of photography was all about subject matter, not about content or form, and he literally could NOT see my stuff. 

That's interesting. What do you mean he couldn't see it? Do you think that type of misperception is widespread among the general public? What about among fine art critics? 

If you’ve been in a museum recently, you’ve probably noticed that people will walk up to a painting, read the curators remarks and maybe glance at the painting. In galleries, they read the price sheets, and then glance. Sort of makes you wonder. With photographs, people generally just respond to subject matter – whether it matches the drapes. If it doesn’t have obvious subject matter, people don’t seem to trust themselves to figure it out – a legacy of our education system, designed to produce docile adults who assume the people in power know more than us.

Who do you think is the primary audience for your work?

I’m not sure I have one – an audience, that is – some people see and like the stuff. The others are polite enough to smile and say nothing.

What music do you like?

Beethoven, Wagner, Jazz (Miles Davis), blues (BB King), Zydeco, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Creedence, some Stones and Tom Waits, especially for the line from Come on up to the House, “Come down off your cross, we could use the wood.” I could go on.

The printed version of this interview appears in the current (and last!) issue of LPV Magazine, along with many other interesting photos and essays. 

Download the whole issue or order a physical copy here


Jack Simon said...

No only would I love to shoot like him, I want to answer questions the way he does too. Thanks for this wonderful interview Blake.

Hernan Zenteno said...

I share several of his thinking about photography and photojournalism. I purchased an used volume of his book Travelog (1974) last year driven by another interview. But the book don´t drive me to the same place as his answers. I wonder now, after this new approach how will be his last book, Arrives and Departures. I will have to wait until I end my debts.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this excellent interview. The world needs more Harbutt.

Anonymous said...

That was great. Thanks b

Zisis Kardianos said...

Charles Harbutt is one of my all-time favorite photographers. I first learn of him on a magazine article about the "Unsung Heroes" of photography. I was cought by that one and only picture on the piece. Then I bought a used copy of "Travelog" and "Progresso" and I was captivated not only by his images but also by his thoughts on photography that seemed to tune-in with a freewheeling attitude that I was beginning to develop for my photography. I keep going back to this book from time to time. For all these reasons I was very excited to see the interview but a bit dissapointed after I read it. I was somehow expecting more solid answers to the otherwise interesting questions. I think at times he was surprisinlgly stiff. I didn't buy "Departures and Arrivals" after realizing on a preview that is basically compiled of recycled material that I have in the other books mentioned. Correct me on this if I'm wrong.

treacyphoto said...

This man turned my photographic, actually my whole life, on its head.

I was struggling through my first months on the Photojournalism Program at the International Center of Photography in 1999. I was set in my ways as a wire service photographer. I was shooting to a formula. But then Charlie's "Spaceship" workshop happened and I was blown away at the freedom it afforded me.

Some humour came through in my work and I was seeing the world anew. When it came time to critique the work at the end of the workshop, he told me things about myself that shook me up. He was right about everything and this was based on the selections of images I was making from the workshop material and all work to date.

I had unknowingly rejected all my previous work with the exception of a portrait of my wife.

He is a most extraordinary man and hugely gifted teacher and photographer. He and Joan are an amazing couple and substantially important teachers on photography and the photographic life.

- Paul Treacy (.com)

Hernan Zenteno said...

I read again this interview today. What I recon of Harbutt is that he was a master, ideologically and practically about the core of photography. I arrived to him from the stormiest time when everybody was staging or photoshopping. I hated some of his photos and loved others, the few, but I love them with passion. I would like to take a beer with him. All the best. Rest in peace Charles, we have a beer pendant.