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Charles Harbutt

June 2015

Learning How to See: Photography as a Second Language

Course Description
Photographs are what cameras see. The commonest criticism of pictures is, “It didn’t come out right. That’s not the way it looked.” Or, more often, “I don’t look like that. I don’t take a good picture.” The problem is that we see ourselves and our world differently than cameras do.

This workshop will use the examples by masters of twentieth century photography to learn what they discovered about how cameras see – and about how to make that vision express something of themselves. Each day there will be a slide lecture which will show a different component of photographic vision – lens, shutter, and film/paper – and then discuss its impact on how photographs “look”, and finally give ideas for field assignments. There will be daily reviews of each assignment.

Having taken photography apart, participants will try to discover how they can put it back together in their own unique ways: to come to be able to see their “look” as photographers. Almost all good photographs started out in life as “bad” photographs, unlike whatever was accepted by critics at the time. In a sense, this workshop is about taking “bad” photographs in ways uniquely your own. In the long run, that’s more satisfying than taking “good” pictures the way someone else does. Besides, the history of photography is made by such photographers, not by critics or curators or communications theorists. However knowledgeable and well-intentioned they may be, they are after all consumers, not producers of photography.

Each day in this class will begin with a review of student work, followed by a slide presentation, discussion, and the assignment for the afternoon. The assignment (proof prints only) will be due the following morning.

Skill Level
Participants in this class should know enough about photography so that correct exposure, development and rough prints, or digital contacts and 4x6 proof prints are easy. Past work by participants will be reviewed and discussed if desired.

Artist's Biography
Charles Harbutt’s pictures have been widely collected and exhibited at (among others) the Museum of Modern Art, the Corcoran Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, and at the Beaubourg, the Bibliotheque Nationale, and the Maison Europeene de la Photographie in Paris. He is represented by the Peter Fetterman Gallery, in Santa Monica, CA. In 1997, his negatives, master prints, & archives were acquired for the collection of the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Arizona. He has had large recent exhibitions at Oaxaca (2013) and Tucson (2013-14) and participated in group shows at the Vienna Museum, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and the Arles Festival. In 2012 he was invited to give a Master exhibition and lecture at the Foto Festival in Bursa, Turkey.

Three books and one monograph have been published of his work:

  • Departures and Arrivals, Damiani, Bologna, 2012
  • Progreso: Navarin Editeur, Paris, 1986 (English edition: Actuality Inc., NYC, 1987)
  • Charles Harbutt: I Grandi Fotografi: Editoriale Fabbri, Milan, Italy: 1983
  • Travelog: MIT Press, Cambridge, 1974. Arles award: Best photographic book of 1974
For the first twenty years of his photographic life, Charles Harbutt was a photojournalist, working mostly through Magnum Photos (of which he was twice president) for magazines in Europe, Japan, and the United States. Since 1980, he has pursued more personal interests, an extension of the boundaries of journalism past the exceptional into the realm of the everyday.

He has been guest artist for a year each at the Rhode Island School of Design, MIT, and the Art Institute of Chicago, and taught at Cooper Union, Parsons, Pratt Institute, Bard College, the School of Visual Arts, and in numerous workshops here and abroad. In 1999, he was appointed an associate professor at Parsons the New School for Design.

Artist's Statement
Departures and arrivals are in the nature of life. As a photographer, I have probably had more of them than most people. Sometimes departures went smoothly, sometimes they hurt. The arrivals were always hopeful. Things change in every life and disappear: it is the pictures that remain from the moments of my life. They are what I looked at, fell in love with (or didn’t), and never forgot.

There are pictures of men and boys, women and girls, statues, pensive monkeys, moments that took my breath away, angered me, made me smile. That broke my heart.

When I started out, I used photography as a way of measuring my country and the life I was born into, a New Jersey boy only ten badges short of Eagle Scout. I worked as a journalist for twenty-five years. First a writer, I soon understood I could get closer to the feel of things by taking pictures. The kinds of stories I chose to do I later realized were mostly about American myths. I photographed small towns, immigrants, the barrio in New York, and then the enormous changes that came with the Sixties. I tried to be a witness as well as show my feelings about all this.

But maybe I had a sell-by time, an expiration date for being a witness. In the early Seventies, 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 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.”

Gradually my pictures became more about what I experienced 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 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 have 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.

Supply List:

A digital camera and computer/printer access (computers and a printer are available in the studio); if you prefer to process film in a dark room to create negatives and proofs, please contact to discuss the facilities that are available.
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