When photographer and former Magnum president Charles Harbutt died on June 29, we called Alex Webb, one of the many photographers Harbutt mentored, for comment. Webb described Harbutt as “a remarkable teacher” who “thought about photography in interesting ways.” Webb also said that the introductory essay Harbutt wrote for his 1974 book, Travelog, “is one of the most special pieces of writing about the process of taking photographs.” Webb noted that he didn’t agree with every word of it, but said, “Some of the things he says are so right about being a photographer and photographic perception.”
Intrigued, we went looking for it, and thanks to social media discovered that photographer Anthony Northcutt had reprinted the essay in full on his blog last year, on the occasion of a retrospective exhibition of Harbutt’s work. He did it, Northcutt wrote, “Because it’s amazing, and will have a direct and lasting impact on your photographic philosophy.” (A short excerpt from the essay was also published on the Lens blog of The New York Times a few days after Harbutt’s death.)
The essay is philosophical without being grandiose. That’s because his description of the mechanics of the camera and the act of making a picture leads naturally into bigger questions, like the nature of time:
“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.”
The essay is, in a way, an explanation of how Harbutt took inspiration from both observable reality and the intuition and emotion that filtered his observation. As photographer Jeff Jacobson put it in our obituary, “He pushed documentary photography up to the edge of recognizable reality. But it was very important for him to have one foot firmly planted in reality.” To make photos of the world, Harbutt writes, is to achieve an awareness akin to what people practicing yoga or Gestalt therapy try to achieve.
“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.”
Some of the essay may seem dated now; Harbutt was writing about film and shutters before the advent of digital capture, and he was also writing at a time when photography was struggling to be accepted as art. His description of photographic practice will probably appeal more to photographers who function in the world than those who create works of their imagination in the studio. Still, Harbutt’s writing is bracing. While it might not, as Northcutt wrote, change your way of making pictures, it might make you want to take a look around you with a little more attention and perhaps a heightened sense of wonder.
Obituary: Photographer Charles Harbutt Dies
Charlie Harbutt: Departures and Arrivals