Charles Henry Harbutt (July 29, 1935 – June 30, 2015) was an American photographer, a former president of Magnum, and full-time Associate Professor of Photography at Parsons School of Design in New York. Harbutt was born in Camden, New Jersey, and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, and learned much of his photography skills from the township's amateur camera club. He attended Regis High School in New York City where he took photographs for the school newspaper. He later graduated from Marquette University.
Harbutt's work is deeply rooted in the modern photojournalist tradition. For the first twenty years of his career he contributed to major magazines in the United States, Europe and Japan. His work was often intrinsically political, exhibiting social and economic contingencies. In 1959, while working as a writer and photographer for the Catholic magazine Jubilee, he was invited by members of the Castro underground to document the Cuban Revolution on the strength of three photographs he had published in Modern Photography.
An editor at Jubilee while Harbutt was working there, Robert Lax, used photographs taken by Harbutt for the front and back cover of his first book of poetry, The Circus of the Sun
Harbutt joined Magnum Photos
and was elected president of the organization twice, first in 1979. He left the group in 1981, citing its increasingly commercial ambitions and the desire to pursue more personal work. He taught photography workshops, exhibited in solo and group shows around the world, and joined the faculty of the Parsons School of Design at New School University as a full-time professor, in addition to serving as guest artist at MIT, Art Institute of Chicago
, and the Rhode Island School of Design
. Harbutt was a founding member of Archive Pictures Inc., an international documentary photographers' cooperative, and a member of the American Society of Magazine Photographers.
His work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art
, the National Museum of American History, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 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 de France
, the Beaubourg
, and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie
In 1997, his negatives, master prints, and archives were acquired for the collection of the Center for Creative Photography
in Tucson, Arizona.
He mounted a large exhibition of his work at the Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City in December 2000 and received the medal of the City of Perpignan at a retrospective of his work there in 2004. He died in Monteagle, Tennessee, on June 30, 2015, at the age of 79. He had emphysema.
Charles Harbutt’s early fascination with magic and the elusive line between perception and reality steered him toward journalism and its documentary role, first as a writer. But he altered his course in 1959, when he was 23, after being invited by Cuban rebels to document the Castro revolution. Immersing himself in Havana’s convulsive and euphoric newfound freedom, he recalled, “I soon understood that I could get closer to the feel of things by taking pictures.”
Mr. Harbutt went on to become an accomplished photojournalist for major magazines and the renowned agency Magnum Photos. “He and Burk Uzzle took photojournalism and pushed it in a direction away from literalism or classicism,” Jeff Jacobson
, a former colleague, told The New York Times
, referring to a contemporary whose pictures of the Woodstock music festival in 1969 gained wide attention, “away from certainly the European paradigm of Cartier-Bresson, and away from the narrative paradigm of Gene Smith to something very, very different, very involved with metaphor.”
But Charles Harbutt became disillusioned with his craft, questioning the veracity of the events he was covering, particularly after witnessing undercover government agents provoke violence at a rally in New Haven in 1970 in support of jailed Black Panthers. “The kinds of stories I chose to do, I later realized, were mostly about American myths,”
he wrote in his last book, Departures and Arrivals
(2012). “I photographed small towns, immigrants, the barrio in New York, and then the enormous changes that came with the ’60s. I tried to be a witness as well as show my feelings about all of this. But maybe I had a sell-by time — expiration date — for being a witness,”
he continued. “In the early ’70s, I started questioning this reportage for myself. A host of manipulators had so corrupted and warped public events, I could no longer trust the authenticity of what I was seeing. I realized that I was more interested in pajamas on a bed one Brooklyn morning, or a Dublin woman hauling groceries to her house, than I was in the machinations of politics and history ‘writ large.’ ”
Mr. Harbutt experimented with surreal composition and juxtaposition of quotidian forms in a style he described as personal documentary and facetiously branded “superbanalisms.”
Among his most famous black-and-white photographs was one of a blind boy, seemingly trying to transcend his sightlessness by reaching for a ribbon of light on a wall. In another, a bride in a flowing white gown poses pensively below exposed pipes and empty tables in a large basement before her wedding reception.
Charles Harbutt’s own favorite, called “Mr. X-Ray Man,”
was shot through a car window on the Rue du Départ near the Montparnasse train station in Paris, where fragments of the cityscape and even of the photographer himself can be seen reflected in the glass. What made it special was that it was unexpected, he explained in Arrivals and Departures
. “What I like best,”
he wrote, “is that however the picture is made, it’s a surprise to me when I see the photo come up in the developer.”
Source: The New York Times