Expanded World View
Charles Harbutt overcame many obstacles in his career, most notably cynicism.
By Margaret Regan
DECEMBER 29, 1997: AFTER 15 YEARS, Charles Harbutt was a seasoned photojournalist. He had witnessed the early days of Castro's revolution, he'd been shot at during the Six Day War in the Middle East and he'd sloshed through the mud at Woodstock.
Yet in the spring of 1970, Harbutt--the latest photographer to be honored with a permanent archive of his work at the UA Center for Creative Photography--saw something so horrifying it made him seriously question the value of his profession. It was the cynical manipulation of a news event by the U.S. government.
A photographer with the prestigious international agency Magnum, Harbutt had arrived in New Haven to cover a Black Panther rally for Bobby Seale for Life magazine. Coincidentally, the rally was scheduled the weekend of the Kent State murders, and tensions were high. When Harbutt checked into his hotel, he noticed four other men registering; their car was a fancy model with Washington, D.C., plates. The next day, when the crowds gathered on New Haven Commons, the atmosphere was jittery, with the local police and the National Guard lined up on one side with a tank, the Black Panthers, local protesters and Yale students on the other. Then Harbutt noticed the men from the hotel, now outfitted in elaborately disreputable hippie finery, yelling provocative slogans at the protesters. They were trying, as Harbutt put it, "to foment something that would provoke an armed response."
The agents' strategy didn't work that time, but the incident fed Harbutt's growing discontent with his role as the person who was supposed to be telling the truth to the world. (His version of the events tends to be confirmed by government files, since opened, that indicate federal intelligence agents did indeed infiltrate assorted "progressive" political groups.)
"If reality was going to be staged, that disillusioned me with journalism," Harbutt said in an interview last month. "I didn't want to be a delivery boy for Nixon or for any politician."
Harbutt, 62, nowadays teaches photography at Parsons School of Design in New York City. In town in November to kick off Foto/Auto/Bio: The Charles Harbutt Archive, an exhibition that showcases his photographs as well as his personal papers, he was still dressed like the intrepid photojournalist, arrayed in the profession's trademark leather jacket and jeans. And in truth, the episode with the federal agents didn't turn him away from journalism altogether. He still works the occasional magazine job, such as a recent New York Times magazine spread about North Dakota. He does spend the bulk of his time on the other pictures--a Yucatecan Indian glimpsed watching television in his tiny house, barbed wire strung above a decrepit Harlem apartment house--that have won him numerous exhibitions in Europe, the publication of several photography books and assorted prizes.
"People call them (the more recent work) fine art, but they are still dealing with the formal issue of time," Harbutt said, an issue that has preoccupied him in all his work, photojournalism included.
Harbutt grew up in the little town of Teaneck, N.J. He learned so much about photography from the "amateurs" in the local camera club that at Marquette in the 1950s he was banned from photog classes on the grounds that he already knew what he was doing. Convinced his future lay in written reporting, he studied journalism at the university and photography in outside workshops. In his junior year, he sold his first photo-story to the progressive Catholic magazine Jubilee. The project was a week-long photographic documentary about a family of immigrants, war refuges from Europe, from the time they stepped on American soil, through their train journey across the country, to their arrival at their new home.
"Certain events have a strict narrative," Harbutt said, "all the events took place in order...I tried to play around with it."
Harbutt graduated from college during the heyday of the photo-magazines (namely Life and Looks) and hired on as a writer/photographer at Jubilee. He still thought of himself primarily as a writer, until the sweltering day when he was assigned to write a story about winter in Japan.
"The sweat was dripping off me. I was not experiencing winter in Japan. I was full of shit. I had never experienced winter in Japan. (As a staff writer) I was less and less out in the world. I realized that the only way I could guarantee that I would actually look at things myself was to be a photographer."
So that's what he did. Soon after, he was invited to join an international group of writers and artists to witness the Cuban revolution in 1959. He was 23 years old.
"I got to Havana two days before Castro," he remembered. "The regular Cuban photographers were doing intelligence for Castro. I was taking pictures...People my age were saying this is how we will run education, this is how we'll run this. They were making up the country as they went along."
But the young photographer's excitement about what he saw happening in Cuba was not shared by conservative editors stateside. "At Life, the fix was in," he said. "They were not interested in anything but their own controlling view. It was typical Time-Life."
Harbutt determined not to become a slave to narrow-minded editors, and freelanced his way through stories on Hispanic ghettoes in New York to his baby daughter's first pair of shoes to Jacqueline Kennedy's trip to Pakistan. He signed on at Magnum in 1963, and stayed until 1981, working in Europe, the Middle East and the U.S.
In 1967, he and several other journalists were fired on as they covered a rally in Saudi Arabia. Terrified, Harbutt ran into a mosque. "Stupid," he says now, but he lived. What bothered him, he wrote later in his book Travelog, is that while the Israeli photographs he subsequently took were publishable, they by no means conveyed his "visual and emotional memories" of what it was like to fear for his life, or what it was like for a nation to be at war. He began to think of alternative forms of photography. And he started teaching, to test out his ideas about what the medium really is, working at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Rhode Island School of Design and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His impressionistic observations of life in the Yucatan, included in the Center show and collected into the book Progreso, are typical of the way Harbutt has worked in the years since Magnum. They're full of the odd moments that tell a lot about a person or place, but probably wouldn't make it over the international news wire. A man holds a bunch of speckled balloons against a deteriorating church wall, a woman checks her hair in the mirror of a shabby hotel room, a line of preschoolers traipse into a room. As Harbutt explains in an essay in his book Travelog, "That magic little black box (camera) enables one to leave, in a small way and for a short while, one's own time and space and to occupy...another time and space."
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