Liberation of Charlie Harbutt
Truvelog by Charles Harbutt. M.I.T. Press. $7.95
LIFE is gone. Those haleyon days have passed into history when a photograph of some great moment or new and distant place could hold a nation transfixed and absorb all the energies of talented photographers.
Charles Harbutt is a victim of the changing times. Or perhaps more accurately, a harbinger of them for his recent work published as Travelog, shows both the exhilaration and the trials of a photojournalist set loose to find himself.
It is now twenty years since Edward Steichen's famous exhibition of The Family of Man marked the nadir of a naive photojournalism: the show's enormous worldwide success in the 1950s was just as much a tribute to the acceptability and comprehensibility of photography as a journalistic medium which Life, etc. had build up as it was a tribute to the quality of the pictures. That sort of photojournalism is no longer vital: When The Family of Man approach to photography burnt itself out when it (visually, if not politically) realized its own propnecy. The mass medias's quest for speed and the exotic pushed the frontiers of exotica so far back and so far back and so saturated the public with images that few people really cared any more about another black and whit photograph.
Life's editors backed themselves into such spectacular and outrageous corners as lighting all of Yankee Stadium at night with flashbulbs while others settled for using photography as a appendage to special interest publications: TV took over the real mass journalism function in society. In any event, nobody except for historians and connoisseurs of photography seemed to care about the spirited photojournalistic documents (of Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith, Andre Kertesz; etc.) which were the backbone of Life or The Family of Man.
The consequence of this development has been a rash of self-conscious, overtly subjective photojournalism. Men like Harbutt have been driven by the increasing respectability of photography as ART, the decreasing consequence of photography as journalism, and maybe an increased jadedness about life in general, to make more and more personally-assertive, arty photographs.
The work that they have produced is quite unique in the history of photography, but all in all, not particularly great. Their "visual statements" send to have all of the paradoxes implicit in the term; their photographs become a sort of cartoon where everything is exaggerated visually in order to assure their "message.
Travelog is the apotheosis of this of this strange melange of literary and visual expression. There are two more or less "traditional" modes of organizing a book of photographs. One is essentially no organization at all; the book is seen as a cheap way to mass-produce or distribute a portfolio or exhibition of individual images. The other is a careful, but more or less unstated juxtaposition of images--as in Robert Frank's seminal The Americans--or of images and writing--as in Lyon's Conversations with the Dead--which produce a mosaic image more profound that any one of its elements alone.
Travelog follows neither of these frameworks, however. The model for this book is James Joyce's Ulysses, although Harbutt also takes elements from The Book of Common Prayer and Dante's Divine Comedy.
Harbutt wants to use his photographs to compose an epic tale, not merely to document. Classic photographic studies have relished the surfaces and appearances of things; they have tried to weave a dialectic between the "reality" of the subject of the photograph and the suspensionn in time and space--in short the "image"--with which the camera has rendered the subject. But Harbutt's pictures are not fundamentally concerned with their subjects. In his Introduction, Harbutt says that the pictures in the book are only the "images to which I had the response: 'Yes, life's like that,' "They are pictures of "how the world really looked to me," not pictures of what the world really is.
This attempt to write a poem, rather than weave a brilliant picture, sets the structure of the book. He notes:
"The specter of Leopold Bloom haunts this book... The easiest entry into its rhythms and movement is to recall the Bloomsday odyssey. I go out into the alien world, hard fearful, lonely. My afternoon stroll passes Sandymount strand: lustful, yearning, fleshy, I descend into a blasphemous bedeviled Nighttown.... and then I wander home..."
And so the first section is entitled "The world," the second. "The Flesh," the third, "The Devil," and the last, "Home."
The pictures in Travelog bear all the marks of his lofty aspirations, Each seems to be trying to shout. "I am profound!" They all have quick impact, as does any journalistic photograph, but many depart in their cropping or subject matter from traditional journalistic photography. His images of "The World" are particularly radical. In order to achieve forceful pictures of inanimate subjects. Harbutt has had to use his camera violently. He has adopted strange vantage points; he has had to look for hyper graphic qualities in his subject matter; he has isolated objects in a very unnatural way. The result is a set of pictures which are flat, without any visual Iyricism. Harbutt has photographed everyday buildings people and street scenes, but his pictures deny any three-dimensionality in their subject. There is no depth in the pictures--even a picture of a crowded street looks like the sort of abstraction that one could make by photographing peeling paint on a wall.
Harbutt claims in his introduction that these picture attempt to relate to my visual experience," but this is dubious. Perhaps they are pictures of his psychic experience--whatever that might be--but these pictures are only peripherally related to purely visual experience. When one walks the streets of N.Y., one simply does not see the world of so little real space and such severely truncated forms that Harbutt has depicted in his photograph of the city.
Charles Harbutt has not recorded on his films the cluttered squirming complexity of city life and simply suspended it before our eyes. Instead, a modern romantic, he has attempted to distill it neatly into its graphic "essence." In the process, he has created pictures that are shocking and disturbing, but meaningless. Their subject matter is only a series of superficial formal coincidences; they are artificial pictures with neither spirit nor sensitivity.
Many of the pictures in "The Flesh." "The Devil," and "Home" have the same autographic, arty quality as the cityscapes of "The world." People in rigid poses are strained into architectonic, formally abstract surroundings; heads are cropped off; expressions and compositions are strange but not descriptive.
To Harbutt's credit, however, a few pictures in these last sections have a sort of life within themselves--even though they acquire that "eternal" quality by concerning themselves directly with their subjects, not Harbutt's question "Is Life like that?" In making these pictures he seems to have thrown away his notions of an "automatic" surrealistic photography and he knows well. The pictures are still formally simply responded to scenes and things that he knows well. The pictures are still formally simple and relatively direct, but now they have elegance. A deftness of tough and vibrancy which was missing in his photographs of the landscape appears in some of these pictures. Pictures like "Mother and Daughter, Brooklyn Heights" glow with a sense of "reality transfixed" even as they open, perfectly ambiguously questions of human consciousness.
AS AN ENTIRETY, Travelog tails to meet the standards of its model, Ulysses, as an existential voyage. Joyce's work succeeded in evoking mythic archetypes from the experience of everyday life by investing that everyday life with all the descriptive richness Joyce could muster in 1000 pages of dense writing; Ulysses is built upon Joyce's talent with the smallest stuff of language just as much as it is upon vision Travelog, however, has no such solid base. The pictures in it just are not good enough. The very process of photography creates enough of a suspension of the real and mystification of it to make the image of a real object in fact surreal. But Harbutt has not realized that such truly surreal and evocative photography requires pictures that are as classically descriptive and uncontrived as a photograph can be.