Charles Harbutt | 1935–2015 |

“I don’t take photographs, photographs take me.”

Charlie Harbutt died on June 29th exactly one month shy of his 80s birthday.

Office of the Dean sent the following message:

Dear Colleagues,
It is with great sorrow that we inform you that Charlie Harbutt, long-time faculty in the Photography program, died earlier this week.  We will host a memorial service for Charlie in the fall, and will follow up with the details when available.

Having taught at Parsons for more than twenty years, Charlie was deeply respected and loved by his students and colleagues. His mentorship influenced generations of young photographers, and the faculty he worked with benefited from his decades of experience and open presence on campus.  We feel this loss deeply, and are grateful that he leaves us with a lasting legacy through his contributions to his field and to his community. We wish strength and comfort to his wife, the photographer Joan Liftin, his family, and all those he inspired throughout his time at our school.  

Departures and Arrivals,  Publisher: Damiani (2012)
departures and arrivals, Publisher: Damiani (2012)
From the introduction to departures and arrivals:  “Gradually my pictures became more about what I felt in my day-to-day wanderings and not so much about subject.  They started to be about the shapes and forms I was seeing and drawn to, suggesting a content different from their subject matter. Such pictures were like gifts from a buried self, glimpses of who I was and what I felt. Photography for me, when I’m working well, is all point and shoot.  I’ve tried a lot of things, some in the darkroom. But what I like best is that however the picture is made, it’s a surprise to me when I see the photo come up in the developer. My all-time favorite was taken on the Rue du Depart near Gare Montparnasse railroad station in Paris because it was so different from what I remember shooting. It was at once a departure and an arrival.”

Other books by Charlie Harbutt

America In Crisis (1969) (contributor and co-editor),  Progreso, Navarin Editeur, Paris, 1986
America In Crisis (1969) (contributor and co-editor), Progreso, Navarin Editeur, Paris, 1986
I Grandi Fotografi Editoriale Fabbri, Milan, Italy: 1983, Travelog, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1974. Arles award: Best photographic book of 1974 
I Grandi Fotografi, Editoriale Fabbri, Milan, Italy: 1983, Travelog, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1974. Arles award: Best photographic book of 1974

Since this is a Process & Skills blog we took the liberty of adding Charlie’s syllabus:

PUPH 2545 A CRN 6585 Spring 2013

Course Description:
Most photographs, whether student, fine art or commercial are made by the traditional art school method: define concept, a pre-visualization, then execute that vision with taste and elegance in some medium. The goal is TOTAL control. For over a century now, artists in almost every medium have disputed this approach: John Cage in music, Martha Graham in dance, the Surrealists and Dadaists with automatic writing and chance juxtapositions, William Burroughs notebooks, Jackson Pollock’s dribbles.

In photography, the box camera originally had no viewfinder, which made such control impossible. Inspired by the weird, but inventive compositions that resulted, photographers using its successor camera, the 35mm, have explored this new approach and some of their discoveries were adapted by their view camera brethren. In their attempt to describe their approach, some photographers say the proper state of mind is to be as blank as the piece of film or as open to discovering images as the lens, which makes pictures all the time. The photographer chooses which ones to preserve on film. This method introduces chance, spontaneity and time into the visual media in a new way. And this has often led to metaphor, as in Steichen’s equivalents. This class will study such spontaneous photographers as they have worked in fine arts, documentary and commercial photography. But primarily it will aim at helping students to produce photographs by this method.

Course Outline:
We moderns trust the pragmatic, logical, “rational” mind more than the intuitive and poetic, even when making art. In schools, we are asked to do assignments, to take a problem and solve it, to execute a concept in some medium. As photographers, we go out “looking for pictures.” That often means looking for moments in the world around us that remind us of pictures we’ve seen in coffee table books or chic magazines. In a way we’re looking at the world with blinders.
Like our eyes, cameras can see and make pictures of everything. You can use the camera, as the poet William Burroughs did, to discover what’s on your mind, even your subconscious. In the process, you might discover ideas you’re more comfortable with or ways of making pictures.

instinct – 1. a. The innate, complex, and normally adaptive aspect of behavior.
b. A strong impulse or motivation

metaphor – A figure of speech in which a term is transferred from the object it ordinarily designates to an object it may designate only by implicit comparison or analogy, as in the phrase “evening of life”

“More profoundly and at times negatively, the way art is experienced has changed. Conceptual Art has encouraged the assumption that every object, every picture, even every abstract painting tells a story – that it carries within it some kind of narrative, meaning or “subtext.” Equally ingrained is the more limiting expectation that all this meaning is primarily intellectual and easily reduced to language, that art as an entity is completely explainable. We owe to conceptualism years of one-lined artworks in all media – the “I get it” school of esthetic experience. This condition has caused a permanent confusion of content with subject matter, to the continuing detriment of both content and form. Too often, art that lacks an explicit subject is thought to without content and dismissed.”

–Roberta Smith, The New York Times

Editor: Katarzyna Gruda


3 thoughts on “Charles Harbutt | 1935–2015 |”

  1. Thank you for including the works and syllabus of Charlie Harbutt.
    It was very interesting to see all that he created visual and to ‘hear” his thoughts on recording those visuals.

  2. I met charlei in 1973 at a photography workshop in upstate NY. I was 19 and just out of HS. His workshop changed my life. I had the opportunity to work with him also. I will never forget his kindness. Thank you for your photography and teaching.

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