Today I want to talk about Charles Harbutt and the essay he wrote for his book “Travelog”, a volume that appeared in 1974, and one that has often been described as “one of the greatest photography essays ever written”.
For those not familiar with Charles Harbutt, for the first twenty years of his photographic life, he was a photojournalist, working mostly through Magnum Photos (of which he was twice president) for magazines in Europe, Japan and the United States. Eventually becoming a full-time Professor at Parsons School of Design in New York. His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of American History, the Corcoran Gallery, the U.S. Library of Congress, George Eastman House, the Art Institute of Chicago, the International Center of Photography, the Center for Creative Photography, and at the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Beaubourg, and the Maison Europeene de la Photographie in Paris. So as you can see he is pretty well celebrated.
“My photographs are both real and surreal,” Charles Harbutt writes of Travelog, containing some 120 examples of his work. “For a while I called them superbanalisms. I don’t think of this book as a portfolio of my best work, but rather as an integrated set of photographs that express where I have been psychologically, emotionally, physically. In a way it is Bloom walking the world. The loneliness, alienation, and fears, the lusts and sexual sorrows, the difficulties of sustaining emotional relationships. The damage people do to each other and the delight they can and do give one another. Throughout the desire to break free. At the same time it is about what is specifically photographic about photography….”
I’m building this essay up for a reason, and a good one at that. Because it’s amazing, and will have a direct and lasting impact on your photographic philosophy. It’s the type of essay I’ll come back to for ideas and inspiration, and one that I’m sure you will too. So enough of me, I’ll now hand over to Mr Charles Harbutt …..
I Don’t Take Pictures; Pictures Take Me
Fifteen years ago, I stopped being a writer and became a photographer. On a sweltering New York August day, l was writing about winter in Japan. Writers, it seemed, didn’t have to go to the places they wrote about because there is no relationship between the written word and anything that ever existed except the imagination of the writer: nothing in the medium, in the nature of the act of writing.
I became a photographer because photographers did have to be wherever they wanted to take pictures, or at least their cameras did. And because there was some connection, inherent in the nature of the medium, between that place and its picture. And the viewers, despite any pitfalls or roadblocks put in their way, could still to some extent be there too. This has always struck me as somewhat amazing. That magic little black box enables one to leave, in a small way and for a short while, one’s own time and space and to occupy, maybe only superficially, another time and space: a then and there that really existed as well as a here and now. Photographs are both real images and imaged realities. This is both unique among media and new in human experience.
The nature of any artistic medium consists in a particular human action on certain materials to produce a new thing. Every medium uses unique means designed to achieve its goals economically: no one sculpts with a paint brush even though marble could be eroded into some form eventually. And these means and acts define not only the nature of the final product, but its uniqueness as a medium and therefore its raison d’etre.
Photographs are made with cameras. Cameras have three parts -lens, film, and shutter- each of which leaves its mark like a chisel on the final image. These parts in turn define the kind of act necessary to produce a photograph both in physical and philosophical terms.
Cameras see differently from people. Lenses have monocular vision and so are unaware of depth and cannot render volume as in Renaissance painting. Lenses relentlessly see everything in front of them, they do not have minds concentrating like search lights on details within their angle of view. And again unlike people, lenses are unaffected in their vision by sound or hearing, smell or memory.
But unlike other media, the lens requires something other than materials and maker in order to function. A writer can write in a void (many do). Beethoven was deaf. Sculptors can sculpt and painters paint miles and years from the sources of their vision. But camera lenses require both light and some real thing external to materials and maker. If a photographer, with the best film and camera, stepped into a seamless sphere and there was no light, he could produce one black picture -true to the reality of the sphere, but his later work would be boring. If that same seamless sphere, that void, were now lit absolutely evenly, he could produce true pictures called “white” and quite a few called “gray” and even possibly one called “black.” But they would only be tinted paper and not really identifiable as photographs because there would be no evidence of the lens’s chisel mark: the ability to limn detail, to delineate some real other thing.
Photography is the result of a balancing act of film, lens, shutter, and light bouncing off something. The photographic image derives directly from, in fact is caused by, whatever objects are in front of the lens. But by this very act, a lens sometimes distorts the lines of the object. And even without this distortion, the lens makes an image which has a separate physical reality from the real object which caused it. So at the same time, a photograph is an experience in and of itself and can preserve some aspects of the direct perception of reality and in fact of reality itself. Photography is the only two-dimensional visual medium, that simultaneously has this inherent relationship between thing made and thing in reality, and its uniqueness springs from the tension between image and reality.
We are now confronted with a medium that can do something no other medium can. Photography can give us a two-dimensional delineation of the real world. It is the closest human technology has come to reproducing (and therefore sharing) that aspect of life known as visual perception. A photograph is able to preserve, like the memory, the raw material, the input data of one human’s experience of life or at least what one person considered memorable enough to point a camera at.
This fact helped painters realize that not only need there not be, but there is not any inherent relationship between painting and reality. Painting is putting paint on a surface; sculpture is making three-dimensional shapes out of various materials; writing is putting words in sequence on paper. Photography is causing images to be made by reality. And since that doesn’t seem to be art, photographers have been fleeing that fact since the first click.
None of this is to deny the reality of the imagination, of the subconscious, or of the dream. Nor is it “invalid” to try to make objects that symbolize the dream. But to deny the reality, the value of the external, given world, also lead to insanity. Photography is the only medium that can deal with this external world directly in away that is inherent to the medium. It is partially a question of economy of means, of not sculpting with a paintbrush. It is very easy to achieve some surface semblance of reality in a photograph and literally impossible to photograph one’s dreams, fantasies, and imaginings. All that can be photographed of the interior world are suggestions, approximations. associations, and, on the most banal level, staged recreations of the dream, not the dream itself. In other media, it is literally impossible to “get” reality (without incorporating it totally, as in Nevelson sculpture), and easy to get the imagination; in fact, there is nothing else. As James Agee pointed out, there is no need for willing suspension of disbelief in photography.
Photography is a reality high. It comes from that impulse which makes one turn and say: “Hey, did you see that?” On one level, It is the photographer’s experience of reality speaking directly to his viewer’s experience of reality. Art is the imagination of the artist speaking directly to the viewers imagination.
Photography is not art. Atget had the right idea when he refused to exhibit his photographs in an art gallery. He had a little sign on his door saying, “Documents pour artistes.” Although photography freed painting from its need to depict reality and so unleashed art’s century-long exploration of itself, photographers adopted the standards and strictures of the French Academy. When that style became passe, photographers began their pell-mell, helter-skelter, Keystone Kops chase of artists down through art history – through romanticism, impressionism, dadaism, futurism, abstractionism, pop, op and now into conceptualism. We’ve had shows of photography as printmaking and as sculpture, as eggs and as tacos. Unfortunately, the “art” photographers are suspiciously behind the painters by a few years. This “me-too” approach is not only undignified, not only visually and morally bankrupt, but anti-photographic in a very deep way.
I say two-dimensional because of the Plastercaster groupies who made casts of that part of the anatomy they most admired in rock stars. But I hear that was a pretty uncomfortable medium. And there are death masks. And taxidermy. And the tape recorder. And film, which is a marriage of tape recorder and camera. Susan Sontag, the critic, stated all this when she postulated in her book Styles of Radical Will that the highest use of the film medium is the documentary, the reproduction of an audiovisual moment in time and that all the rest of what is called cinema is the recording of theatrical events which can be properly criticized only as theater, with a slight nod to production values.
Photography’s lack of self-respect would of course annoy George Bernard Shaw, who wrote: “When the photographer takes to forgery, the press encourages him. The critics, being professional connoisseurs of the shiftiest of the old makeshifts, come to the galleries where the forgeries are exhibited. They find to their relief that here, instead of a new business for them to learn, is a row of monochromes which their old jargon fits like a glove. Forthwith they proclaim that photography has become an art.”
Photography is not art; it is something totally new in human experience, something people have not been able to do before the last century or so. And art critics and philosophers have reacted like the Pope to Galileo. Since the fact doesn’t fit the theory, jettison the fact.
Photography is not art because the basic impulse of the photographer is diametrically opposed to the basic impulse of the artist at least in one large respect. The artist tries to bring into existence something new that never had concrete existence before. The photographer tries to bring into existence something new that preserves something that already has concrete existence but will cease to exist in just that way in the next moment or day or year. And for Goethe, at least, the imagination for the real was imagination’s highest form, Perhaps photography is simply a higher stage in humanity’s artistic evolution from that first hand-drawn, cave-hidden deer. And critics are known to be dinosaurs.
The concept of preservation is significant in photography not only because cameras have lenses, but also because they have shutters. A shutter is a timing mechanism. Time means change. Two successive pictures cannot be made of a person and be line-for-line the same, unless that person is dead. And then it can be done only for a while, not for all time. Photography is deeply related to time. It wants to stop time. It wants to lay claim to immortality. To cheat death. In a way, because photographs of Lincoln exist, not all of him dies. We can still reclaim some surface parts of a particular moment of his Iife. His real face produced the lines in the image. All art has is the artist and his impressions, not really, really Lincoln. If photography had existed in Christ’s time, we might have been spared some atrocious religious art.
Photographers acknowledge time over and over again in their book titles: Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment, Lartigue’s Diary of a Century, Penn’s Moments Preserved. All photographs can be precisely dated to the very fraction of a second when they were made and all great photographs contain some attitude toward time: either real time -the Thirties, Saturday morning, peak action-, or camera time- only at this moment were these masses in equilibrium, double exposures, or even personal time: this moment reminds me of my childhood, or of a dream or a feeling.
To sum up the materials of the photographic medium (which in turn defines the act): A photograph is the result of the action of light bouncing off something in reality other than the artist (usually) as these rays are focused by a lens into an image for a long enough time (which is controlled by the shutter) to allow the light to change the chemicals in the film. When this is done the linear detail of reality is etched onto the film and the real thing’s tonal scale is approximated chemically in the tonal scale of the film-print-transparency.
To understand the nature of the photographer’s act, it is important to understand how cameras see (since cameras take pictures) and what that corresponds to in human experience. When Jacques-Henri Lartigue was a little boy and ran out of film, he would blink his eyes at anything he saw that he wanted to remember and then sketch it in his diary. The reverse is more like a camera. If you close your eyes, turn your head left or right, up or down, then, saying click, open and close your eyes very quickly, you will experience the photographic moment. It’s like that inside a camera when the shutter clicks. When I tried it, I noticed a sudden rush of light and a jumble of objects. A student once said that more than noticing that the world was still there, she noticed that she was still there. I see therefore I am. Closed eyes are the state of dreams; only interior visions are possible then. When the eyes are open, an awareness of dreams and the interior life is stilI possible, but awareness of the external world is possible only with open eyes. And therefore, the fullest experience of life is possible only when one is awake and with open eyes, out on the streets of the world.
This sense of quickness, of being alive on this earth, of simple orgasmic sense perception, is the point at which great photographs are made. Photographs come from that moment in the process of cognition before the mind has analyzed meaning or the eyes design and at which the experience and the person experiencing are fully, intuitively, existentially there. Such images look like photographs, not paintings, there is a tremendous sense of stopped time, of the blinking shutter, of being alive and still there, of discovery (rather than analysis), of chance, not design, of quick emotion from an uncertain cause. Photography is at its best when it deals with the very act of seeing in itself and not with recollections in tranquility or dilettantism of design.
The moment of creation in photography is similar to a state of consciousness very much sought after in yoga. Or Gestalt therapy. It is to be at the exact center of one’s being, where an awareness of everything going on inside oneself -in fantasy, memory, emotions and thought- is balanced by sensitivity to what is happening outside the person and what it means and feels and is. If a photographer can become sufficiently aware of this continuum and have the energy to push a shutter when inside and outside click together, that camera might produce some very fine photographs indeed. And they would be unique and original (good or bad) because the particular way the world would fall into space from that camera angle could not be seen by any other camera. One couldn’t occupy the same physical place. And because that particular continuum is totally personal, And because a person is different from moment to moment. As is the world. But all one’s photographs would share that unique personal way of being alive, and it is this being aliveness that viewers can respond to.
William Faulkner inadvertently wrote a fine definition of photography when he said: “The goal of every artist is to stop movement, which is life, by artificial means and to maintain it fixed so that one hundred years later, when a stranger may gaze at it, it will once again move, because it is life.”
How is this continuum of photographer, world, and camera achieved? Each person must find it individually, but for me it has flowed from the realization that I don’t take pictures, pictures take me. I can do nothing except have film in the camera and be alert. My adversary, a photograph, stalks the world like a roaring lion. Pictures happen. One can only trust one’s sensitivity, the bounty of the world, and the chemistry of Kodak. This is the photographic method. And Grandma knew all about it. There was Junior in the summer sun looking gorgeous in his diapers. Grandma was bursting with love. How could she consume the baby and still have him? Click. Now nothing: not age, not trouble, not dope, not long hair, not the wrong girlfriend or boyfriend, not death, not anything: no thing can take that moment away from Grandma, And when she looks at the picture, all the emotion will come back. She might sigh a little, but it will come back. And if she was any way a good photographer it might even come back for all of us, who don’t even know Junior, after she is gone.
This existential approach to photography raises two problems. Meaning and design.
Most of us come at the world with a set of preconceived notions. whether from church, school, past experience (and neuroses.), or the media. These constitute a mental set, a Weltanschauung which explains-and sometimes explains away-reality. But reality comes without adjectives, it just is. The photographer’s problem is to come to see the real world as it really is, like the boy hero of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In some ways, all photographers must become cavemen. Or aliens. Or children.
The basic problem is to find out what things mean through direct perception of what is, even though that perception will be colored by what we think we know. We cannot escape who we are, but we can make an effort to let reality be itself, to be open to what the world outside our heads is on its own terms. Again, it is the continuum and all its parts: the photographer is really there with all his mental and emotional baggage; the camera is really there with all its needs technically and visually; and the world is there to be discovered. Each moment is a new moment: to assign old meaning to a new moment may be to rob it of its meaninglessness. Nor is it a photographer’s business to change the world, literally or politically-the former is fascism, the latter propaganda even if of the noblest sort.
The problem of photographic design is very similar to that of meaning. Good photographs must show the evidence of how they were made, of the lens, shutter, and film, of the unique ability among print media to “render” fine detail in continuous tone. But since photographs are not rendered by hand, concepts for handmade design cannot be automatically applied. When design class rules are superimposed on reality, the design kills.
The significant point is that if we are as open to reality as a camera is, that is as totally as a blank film to light, we in fact perceive meaning or feel emotion through reality’s own form. Any thing we see which we understand, or which moves us when we see it, at that very moment has a form which is already “designed” in reality to cause us, with our programmed set of responses, to understand it or have that feeling. The photographer’s job is more to discover reality’s forms and meanings than simply to project his own (although he must respect and be aware of his meanings and feelings). And to discover not only reality’s forms and meanings as well as his own. but the camera’s special ways of seeing. Only by following this route has the great visual inventiveness of photography been achieved.
Photographic design is more related to jazz than to formal, classical composition. It is a spontaneous, instinctive, even subconscious act, not rigidly thought out. Yet the final print must have both form and content welded with a certain inevitability. Photographic graphics is the product of the medium’s ability to combine fine detail in continuous tone, to deal with chance events and accept them into the design only because they are there, to transmit the sense of a moment isolated in flux, to accept the acute angle destroying the geometry of the rectangular frame and the buzz-saw tendencies of the frame itself, Photographic graphics delights in purely photographic “mistakes”: the tilted horizon, the cropped-out head, the out-of-focus masses, overexposure and underexposure, halation.
Photographic graphics is designed to say: This is camera made, not handmade.
Implicit in this entire thesis is a new set of criteria for judging photographs. First of all, a photograph must be obviously a photograph, that is, it must look like one. It must achieve to the fullest extent what it is uniquely capable of being. It is very fine if the photograph achieves this goal in a uniquely or at least amusingly photographic way. It is even finer if a photograph comes along which achieves photography’s goals in an original way.
The photographic goal, flows from the nature of the medium. Photography is the only medium that originates in and is caused by the real, historical. time-space event of a collision between a man, a camera and reality. But the photograph itself occupies its own time and space and is a separate thing from that real-time collusion. Most photographers see only one or the other of those aspects of the medium. Documentary, news, and street photographers see mainly the reality, the content or subject. “Artistic ” and academic photographers see mainly the image, its style, technique, and fantasy associations. Great photographs exist not so much where image and reality meet and balance, but in the electric tension between real and unreal. The good photographer skates as close to the brink of total real ism, while still honoring the otherness of the image, or he skates as close to otherness-the sheer, unique, two-dimensional object-while never leaving the direct realism of which the medium is capable. But the great photographer skates close to both brinks simultaneously and, in the process, frequently states new ways the problem can be perceived if not solved, new ways the rules can be broken it not observed. The result is a two-dimensional image that is a separate experience in itself while totally authentic to the real continuum which gave it birth.
Beyond that, for me, it is a question of how much, Was it worth doing? How many photographic balIs was the photographer able to juggle at once. How deep a perception of being alive? How rich an emotion? How sensuous an experience? How elegant a Iine or tone or technique? Or how inelegant? How real? How unreal? How surreal? A camera is a filter through which the reality of an existential moment (the world plus the camera plus alI of the person) pours onto the film, which preserves the visual aspects of that moment as photographed from where you are, physically as well as in terms of awareness and depth.
Writing about a visual medium tends to make the simple complex. If you want to make photographs, all you do is point the camera at whatever you wish, click the shutter whenever you want. If you want to judge a good photograph, ask yourself: Is life like that? The answer must be yes and no, but mostly yes.
If you are in the Chicago area, The Center for Creative Photography is celebrating Charles Harbutt’s photographic work, and its relationship to the printed page. The exhibition will feature a complete set of prints from Harbutt’s newest publication, Departures and Arrivals, sequenced as they appear in the book, along with a short video in which Harbutt and Joan Liftin describe the book’s creative process. You can find all the details here, and the show runs until May, 2014.