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In Memoriam: Charles Harbutt, 1935-2015 

July 2, 2015 
by Alex Webb 
Charles Harbutt, a member of Magnum from 1963 to 1981, died at the end of June, 2015. A unique and remarkable photographer, he was president of Magnum twice — from 1970-1972 and 1976-1978 — and was an important presence in the agency for many years. Charlie was also a singular teacher — as well as an insightful and thought provoking writer on photography, as exhibited by the following texts, which are excerpts from his three monographs. We at Magnum will miss him deeply and send our condolences to his widow, the photographer Joan Liftin, and his children, Sarah, Charles, and Damian. — Alex Webb

“Departures and arrivals are in the very nature of life. As a photographer, I have probably had more of them than most people. Some departures went smoothly, sometimes they hurt. The arrivals were always hopeful. Things change in every life and disappear, but it is the photographs that remain from 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, pensive monkeys, moments that took my breath away, angered me, made me smile. That broke my heart.”—Charles Harbutt from his introduction to Departures and Arrivals, Damiani, 2012

“The Yucatan is a gentle place: less frantic and hidden than the big cities of the world…I think I was seduced by Mayan notions of progress: that time is cyclical; things don’t get better day-by-day, they just swirl around like dust in the street. Mostly, the pictures remind me of the small, northern New Jersey towns where I grew up, where days were filled with finding a girl or a job or a pleasant way to fill the time until tomorrow.

Maybe, because I’m short and stocky, I felt at home: most Mayans past first blush tend to be chunky, so Merida is a city of chubby cops and chubby robbers, chubby Romeos and chubby Juliettas. I was the tallest man around. Maybe, just maybe, I was once a Mayan.” — Charles Harbutt from his introduction to Progreso, Archive Pictures, 1986

“Great photographs exist not so much where image and reality meet and balance, but in the electric tension between real and unreal. The good photographer skates as close to the brink of total realism, while still honoring the otherness of the image, or he skates as close to the otherness — the sheer, unique, two-dimensional object — while never leaving the direct realism of which the medium is capable. But the great photographer skates as close to both brinks simultaneously and, in the process, frequently states new ways the problem can be perceived if not solved, new ways the rules can be broken if not observed…

Beyond that, for me, it is a question of how much. Was it worth doing? How many photographic balls was the photographer able to juggle at once: How deep a perception of being alive? How rich an emotion? How sensuous an experience? How elegant a line or tone or technique? Or how inelegant? How real? How unreal? How surreal? A camera is a filter through which the reality of an existential moment (the world plus the camera plus all of the person) pours onto the film, which preserves the visual aspects of that moment as photographed from where you are, physically as well as in terms of awareness and depth.

Writing about a visual medium tends to make the simple complex. If you want to make photographs, all you do is point the camera at whatever you wish; click the shutter whenever you want. If you want to judge a good photograph, ask yourself: Is life like that? The answer must be yes and no, but mostly yes.”—Charles Harbutt from his epilogue to Travelog, MIT Press, 1973