Charles Harbutt, a photographer captivated by magic in pictures

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Charles Harbutt, a photographer captivated by magic in pictures

Charles Harbutt has always been fascinated by magic, dating back to when he performed tricks of illusion for his friends as a kid growing up in Teaneck, N.J.

By the time he got to high school in 1949, Harbutt had long grown out of the idea that he might become a next-generation Houdini. But he was still different from the other kids at his school, where sports was almost a religion. Either you were on a team or you stood in the stands cheering — and Harbutt wasn’t interested in either. But he found an out by signing up as a photographer for the school paper, and soon, he was on the sidelines making pictures.

It was the first time Harbutt had ever seriously used a camera, and, as he recalled in a recent interview, “It changed my life.”

At first, his decision to take pictures was a little about vanity. Harbutt liked seeing his images alongside his name in the paper. But soon, he realized photography was also a way for him to continue exploring the themes that had captivated him about magic, including the idea of reality versus perception and how what you see in pictures wasn’t necessarily the original intent of the photograph.

Those themes are on display in “Departures and Arrivals,” a retrospective of Harbutt’s career on display at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson until June 1.

The exhibition includes what Harbutt describes as his “favorite photos” from his nearly six decades of working as a professional photographer, including a stint as president of the renowned photo agency Magnum.

It includes photos from all over the world — from a desolate highway in rural New Mexico to the packed streets of Paris, where Harbutt took a picture through a car window of people outside the Gare Montparnasse railroad station.

The resulting photo, titled “Mr. X-Ray Man,” is a riddle for the eye. There’s a balance of dark and light, forming different shapes. There are competing reflections of buildings and people, and it is also a self-portrait of the photographer at work.

It is Harbutt’s favorite photo of his long career — in part because the end result was so different than the picture he thought he was taking.

“I thought it was a straightforward image, but I hadn’t noticed the details,” Harbutt recalled. “But many times, you don’t. Sometimes you don’t see what the picture really is until after you’ve taken it.”

Harbutt almost didn’t become a photographer. In high school, he won awards for his photos — including an honorable mention in a national high school photo contest sponsored by Kodak. (One of the other winners was Bruce Davidson, who later went on to be one of Harbutt’s colleagues at Magnum.) But Harbutt still believed he was destined to be a writer — and he focused as much on words as photos during college.

Then in 1959, when he was 23, Harbutt, who was then working as a writer and photographer for the Catholic magazine Jubilee, was invited by supporters of Fidel Castro to come and document the Cuban revolution.

Harbutt, who didn’t speak Spanish, immediately jumped on a plane and arrived in Havana just two days before Castro ascended into power. What he found was chaos. He saw dead bodies for the first time — of fallen Castro supporters killed by government troops. He spent a night in jail after being arrested for being a member of the press. And he was overwhelmed that it was people his own age who were fighting to change their government.

For Harbutt, it was the most exhilarating moment of his life, and he knew he couldn’t go back to being a writer. He wanted to be on the front lines, documenting those stories with images.

“This was living,” Harbutt recalled. “If being a photographer could bring me to all this, I would become one.”

Within a few years, Harbutt had joined Magnum and had photographed everything from wars to Woodstock. He became a legend in New York, working with celebrated photographers like Garry Winogrand — who, along with Harbutt, taught photography to young up-and-comers at a time when people could still meet and learn from the industry's greats.

But during the turbulent politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Harbutt began to feel disillusioned about his role as a photojournalist. To him, it seemed more and more events were being staged — including an incident in the spring of 1970 in which federal agents posed as hippies trying to incite violence during a Black Panther protest at Yale University.

“It made me question everything I was doing,” Harbutt recalled. “I’m supposed to be impartially documenting reality, but I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t.”

So Harbutt began focusing increasingly on his personal work — which was less about reportage and more about the scenes he saw from day to day. To some, they might have been images of the ordinary — cigarette smoke rising in the sunlight, the reflections on storefront windows, people walking to work.

But to Harbutt, his focus wasn’t about subject matter; it was about how a single picture could be perceived differently though shapes and reflections and the looks on peoples’ faces. It was about illusions and perceptions — the same kind of magic that had fascinated him as a kid. Soon, he had a new mantra about photography.

“I don’t take pictures,” said Harbutt, who, at age 78, is still working the camera. “Pictures take me.”