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Remembering Charles Harbutt Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

3 July 2015

Charles Harbutt, who died earlier this week at 79, took photography beyond the decisive moment into surreal realities that "broke my heart" and now survive him.

Born in Camden, N.J. in 1935 and raised in Teaneck, N.J., he graduated from Regis High School in Manhattan before earning a bachelor's degree in journalism from Marquette University in Milwaukee.

He had learned photography at the local Camera Club in Teaneck and became a sports photographer at his high school to avoid cheering for the team.

His early professional work for the Catholic magazine Jubilee, which he joined in 1955, covered European immigrants, migrant farm workers and civil rights. In 1959, Fidel Castro invited him to tour post-revolution Cuba.

He had his first exhibition in Manhattan in 1960. He was twice president of Magnum, which he joined in 1964 and where he recruited Jeff Jacobson, Mary Ellen Mark, Alex Webb and Eugene Richards.

But his work took a turn from photojournalism when he noticed "a host of manipulators had so corrupted and warped public events, I could no longer trust the authenticity of what I was seeing."

That manipulation was only part of the problem, though. So was the photographer's own mindset:

One of the curious things about the journalistic photographer or the concerned photographer is his tendency to break the world down to either saccharine or vinegar. What about chili peppers? Or béarnaise sauce? Or meat and potatoes straight?

Instead, he began working more personally, disregarding formal rules. "Photography is not a religion; it's not accounting; it's not based on logic only," he said in an interview with Blake Andrews. "There are no commandments and only a few would-be popes."

He became more interested in the surreal, keeping one foot in reality and leaping with the other into poetry.

He said of these more personal images:

Things change in every life and disappear, but it is the photographs that remain from my life. They are what I looked at, fell in love with (or didn't) and never forgot. There are pictures of men and boys, women and girls, statues, pensive monkeys; moments that took my breath away, angered me, made me smile. That broke my heart.

He famously photographed a blind boy from behind as he reached for the wall, a streak of sunlight running down the wall and the boy's back. And a bride posed below him on a white sheet in a church basement seen among the folding chairs and long tables, the duct work and the bright kitchen shining behind her.

Those images and 13 more are included in James Estrin's Charles Harbutt: Photographer, Teacher, Mentor, a photo tribute with excerts from Harbutt's 1974 book Travelog.

Harbutt co-founded Archive in 1981 with ex-Magnum members Mark Godfrey, Abigail Heyman, Joan Liftin (also his wife) and Mary Ellen Mark.

His work has been published in Life, Look, Paris-Match, Newsweek, Fortune, National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine. It has also been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum, the Beaubourg, the Bibliotheque Nationale, the Maison Europeene de la Photographie in Paris and other institutions. And in 1997, the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson acquired his archives.

He published three books and a monograph:

He was also much admired as a teacher and taught at Parsons School of Design. As in his photos, former student and photographer Alex Webb recalled, "He would say extremely little and convey a lot."

He conveyed a lot in Visura Magazine's The Unconcerned Photographer, the text a lecture Harbutt gave in 1970.

In that lecture he defined the role reality plays in photography:

To put it all another way: to make a photograph, there has to be something other than the photographer and his medium: light, film and camera. There has to be something in reality. For a painter there just has to be the painter and his medium -- paint and surface. For a writer, pen and paper.

You can't make a photo without reality. But, as Harbutt proved, you don't have to stop there.

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