Moments in time

Twice president of Magnum, who died in June this year, photographer Charles Harbutt talks us through an extraordinary career and its seminal moments. Glass celebrates the career of this eminent image maker

Just as Charles Harbutt’s images are more found than artificially created, it seems that history too had a knack of placing Harbutt at the centre of powerful political and social movements. From the Cuban revolution to a Black Panthers rally, Harbutt’s lasting images capture and reveal the feeling, significance and subtlety of ephemeral moments in time.

A Professor at Parsons The New School before his death in June this year, Harbutt graduated in journalism and became a freelance photographer in 1959. In 1963 he joined Magnum, where he was twice  President. Harbutt founded Archive Pictures in 1981 and today his work is found in over 25 museum collections around the world.

Kitch Bathroom, Lower East Side,NY, 1960

Who or what inspired you to want to be a photographer?   
I was extremely near-sighted as a child and I thought that was the way the world was. For me photographs were a fantasy; real things were blurry. I grew up in a suburb of New Jersey and I remember one day I was sitting in my living room and out of the corner of my eye I saw a giant bear enter the room.

But the image soon resolved itself into my mother in a fur coat. My favourite pictures suggest another reality; it’s that edge between what literally is there and what could be there which has stuck with me and which most of my work is about.

When you were 23 you were invited by the Castro regime to chronicle the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Why were you chosen?
It was a mistake on the part of the Cuban underground. There was a man associated with a picture magazine here in New York and his wife was a Cuban Nationalist. This magazine did a portfolio of my work of which there was a Puerto Rican migrant farmer living in desperate poverty. They thought that because of that picture and its attitude that I would be sympathetic to the Cuban revolution (which I was), and assumed that I spoke Spanish, which I didn’t.

I got a call on New Year’s day – the revolution occurred at midnight – asking me if I would like to join the “Operación Verdad” to bring non-Cuban artists in various media to Havana to do works related to the revolution. If I wanted to go I would get a room and board and airfare. And I had to be at La Guardia airport at 6pm. It sounded great to me so that’s what I did.

When I arrived I realised I was the only photographer. Two men came up to me and said that they had just started a newspaper called Revolución and would continue to put out its weekly magazine. They asked if I would work on it because all the Cuban photographers were busy serving as intelligence officers for the Castro government. That was the first major news story I was ever involved in.

In one day I had seen my first skeleton, which had been dug up from a grave; I had covered this very emotional event of Castro speaking to his troops; and I had been in jail for the first time in my life. If photography could bring all that excitement to me I was going to become a photographer no matter what. And that’s exactly what I did when I got back to the States.

Le Mistral, En route Arles-Paris, 1975

How did the Cubans respond to you, an American, taking pictures of them?
A lot of the people in that revolution were very young, Castro was only 33 and a lot of the people around him were students but had played an important and sometimes armed role in the revolution. They would stay up all night in Havana arguing about how they were going to get universal literacy and equal distribution of wealth. Basically they felt that if I was willing to work with them they didn’t care who I was.

You once covered a rally for the Black Panthers. Tell me about that experience.
COINTELPRO was a secret operation run by the FBI from 1956 to 1971 aimed at destroying all protest movements in the United States. They were surveilling everyone; Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King were two of the people who were targeted. I had an assignment from Life to cover this rally because there had been stories planted in the press that the students were arming themselves and that all students around the country were going to descend on New Haven and free Huey Newton who was in jail there.

When I arrived at my motel there was an unmarked police car in front of me, and four guys in suits got out. The next morning I saw these same men dressed in bandanas and blue jeans leading a phalanx of students, trying to foment a riot. If I had shot that it would have been a picture of revolutionaries going up against the state and being prevented from doing so by the blacks. This made me want to quit being a journalist. You couldn’t trust what you saw.

Death on Wall, Avignon, France, 1975

You’ve worked both as a journalist and as a photojournalist. Do you feel that pure journalism lacks a sense of realism that photojournalism is able to capture?
No I don’t feel that way because look at writers such as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Hunter S Thompson who so brilliantly captured the spirit of the times. But most journalism is about attempting to get the facts straight and delivering the information people need to know; good photographers are trying to give you the feel of an event.

Tyler Hicks is a great photographer who was covering Afghanistan, and he’s done an excellent job of showing the public what it must feel like to be a front line soldier. Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths did that as well. It’s the feeling of the experience that they bring to life.

In 1963 you became a member at Magnum (a cooperative photography agency founded in 1947 by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson), where you were voted president twice. How did your work evolve, or rather how did your views on photography evolve, during the 15 plus years of your tenure?
I started taking pictures for myself, apart from what I was doing professionally. I covered the Israeli war of 1967 through Magnum. When I got back from that I had these recurring images of how beautiful the sun was glinting off the cartridge shells on the street in the midst of heavy battle.

I hadn’t shot these images but they were important enough for me that they were coming up in my dreams. And that meant that there must be disconnect between what I was doing professionally and what was getting burned into my consciousness. From then on I started spending time shooting for myself and I still do that even today while I teach.


Man Ray stated that photography is not art, and you’ve said the same. Do you still believe this statement to be true?
I think it’s better than art. This is a medium that can incorporate time, chance events, and can be dated precisely to when it was made.
In primitive caves you find handprints, images where the thing itself makes its picture. This is also a very good definition for photography. It’s a way of saying, “I am here.”

by Nicola Kavanagh

From the Glass Archive – Issue Six – Power

About The Author

Glass Magazine editor in chief

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