Charles H.Traub has an Eye for Everyday Beauty

By:  Anna Hilderman


Charles H. Traub’s oeuvre spans decades of street portraiture and multi-disciplined visual projects. His recent publications include Lunchtime, a vivid, sunlit assortment of 1970’s lunch-goers, and No Perfect Heroes: Photographing Grant, an interactive iBook that combines black-and-white stills with audio excerpts of the president’s memoirs. Herein, true to his body of work, Traub explains his motivation.

Q: Your photographs, particularly in your Lunchtimeare known for being up-close snapshots of pedestrians who are rather eccentric on their own. Do you photograph your subjects with your own dreamt-up character in mind for them?

A: The times were slightly different in the late 70’s. People were less guarded so one could approach them fairly openly. I photographed people because I was genuinely curious about who they were and I delighted in the projections they made. I was guided by the famous book, Presentations of Self in Everyday Life by the sociologist, Irving Goffman. My premise was and still is that people pretty much are what they are on the surface. I’m referring to a line now by Oscar Wilde: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible…” What one finds in the real world is as magical and probably more fanciful than anything anybody could dream up. The coincidences and ironies of the real world are perhaps more enigmatic than anything one could fictionalize. Frankly all photographs are a kind of fiction, what I call a taradiddle: a little white lie, a little absurdity. Like life itself, we fake it til we make it.

Q: How does shooting on the street in the late 70’s compare with today, when people go out with the expectation of being captured by street style photographers? Was there more room for the photographer’s vision?

A: There may be more room in making of what we call a “social landscape” image. But being able to go up to people with the question, “Can I take your picture?” may be more difficult. People are in a rush and are more sensitive about being exploited. You have to be honest in your approach! There’s a famous story I’ve often told; standing in 1979 at the corner of 5th Avenue and 57th Street, across the street at Tiffany’s was a gaggle of paparazzi surrounding a limousine. I was on the other side, sort of aloof, telling people I’m not with them. So who walks by, the most famous woman in the world, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who stops in front of my camera and says, “If you need to take my picture, please be quick.” I said, “Mrs. Onassis, I’m not here for that purpose, thank you very much.” I’m laughing at myself and all those paparazzi across the street going after Charlie’s Angel Jaclyn Smith getting her wedding ring. So no sooner did that happen than John Lennon and Yoko Ono walk by and do exactly the same thing. I didn’t take their picture either…The truth is that everybody wants to be noticed, wants to be photographed. They have that coat and tie on for a reason and a sloppy dress that is more consider red than not. I believe, what’s worn is a deliberate decision. That’s what I’m interested in, the social fabric of the human condition.

Q: Is there an image of yourself that you hope to project?

A: I try as best I can to be put-together and, at the same time, I think people probably say: “He does something interesting, he’s a creative person” from the way I look. Consciously or unconsciously, I think we all dress in a manner that anticipates how we want to be perceived.

Q: How does the photographer-subject paradigm shift between shooting in Italy as an outsider vs shooting in Chicago or New York as an American?

A: If you’re really making serious observations through the camera, you have to always be an outsider, because the minute you try to be an insider, you’ve lost some kind of perspective on the subject. You’ve got to stay outside of it. Though I can try to express sympathy and empathy, I still have to remain objective about what I’m seeing.

Q: Our next issue is themed to unexpected perceptions. When revisiting your collections from the 70’s and 80’s, what stands out to you as “unexpected”?

A: I think the unexpected are the performers, the by passers. A photographer of my type has the means to acknowledge people and to give them a kind of dignity, a timelessness. There’s a certain baroque quality to my work. I like that; today I more consciously look for that kind of configuration, and I see it in the posing of people all the time. The character, the role-playing of people is what interests me. There are such things as stereotypes. My work aims to make collections of such and in order to create a body of work that tells us that something close to true.

Q: As the Chair of the Photography, Video and Related Media department at of The School of Visual Arts New York, how do you keep an eye towards digital innovation?

A: When I started the program almost 30 years ago, we were the first digital program anywhere. Frankly, all lens and screen arts education has to be digital. Aspiring creative image makers have to be multi-talented, transdisciplinary, and able to work in the dialogue and the management of the imagery that is constantly engaging us. I totally believe in the digital, in the idea of being an image manager, somebody who rethinks what an image can say: what I call a creative interlocutor. Using imagery as data, computational photography and understanding these means not purely in the technical sense or in the scientific sense but in their potential as a creative form of expression is the concern of the artist.

Mclean Farm, Appomattox, Virginia, 2012

Q: What would you say to a visual arts student who lacks the resources to travel?

A: The cost of higher education is pretty ridiculous and hopefully a better government will help students find the resources to do something about their loans. Everything we do in the world is influenced by the lens and screen arts. We need to train a generation of people to be adept at it. If you are engaged in the creative possibilities of the digital, you have the ability to be employable. Young students who come from all over the world seem to manage the travel pretty well. Maybe the short answer is you can travel pretty much anywhere through everyone else’s pictures. The corollary to your question is that a lot of students are caught up in the personal world. The self, the memories of my childhood, and all of that overly preoccupy young students. This is a little bit narcissistic: “Oh, I have to explore my desktop.” I wish they would step out into the real world a little more. To give witness. I’m not sure they want to. It is not just the cost of travel, it’s the lack of curiosity and interest in the other.

Q: You can, as you said, stay in other people’s photography, stay so insular your own room exploring the computer and taking still lives of your own possessions.

A: Yes, I think people are more insular because the world is more complicated and threatening than it once was. The lack of curiosity comes from somewhere else. For example, if you make a reference to a student and later ask them about it, they often say: “I haven’t looked it up yet. “ Ironically, because it’s so easy to do in the realm of the circuit, they sort of slough it off or forget to actually do the research. What I’m talking about is a kind of generational slacking. Of course, I’m generalizing and perhaps acting a like an old fart.

Q: It’s certainly an excuse not to go further. Are there any old, unpublished collections of yours that you would like to see released?

A: There are several. There’s one called Bowery though I’m changing the name to Skid Row. It is a collection of portraits I took in the Bowery in New York and uptown in Chicago in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Then there’s a whole body of digital work, Still Life in America and several iterations of Taradiddle, which have yet to be published. I’d like for Still Life in America to be in a public space where people can interact with it and keep adding to it. I would do it both ways [digital and analogue]. I think working with big screens and having people be able to work with the images themselves is where we should be at, because everyone has their own dialogue and their own means of how to arrange it.