Charles Harbutt and the Travelog Essay

“Closed eyes are the state of dreams; only interior visions are possible then. When the eyes are open, an awareness of dreams and the interior life is still possible, but awareness of the external world is possible only with open eyes. And therefore, the fullest experience of life is possible only when one is awake and with open eyes, out on the streets of the world.”

Photographs ©Charles Harbutt

“A photograph is able to preserve, like the memory, the raw material, the input data of one human’s experience of life or at least what one person considered memorable enough to point a camera at.”

One of the first books that was recommended to me was Travelog.  I was advised to read the essay intently.  I’ve heard more than one photographer mention the influence the essay has had on their photographic philosophy.  It’s the type of essay that I like to re-visit often for ideas and inspiration.  I’d forgotten about it again recently until someone quoted it during a conversation, which was a clear signal that I’d better go back and read it again.  What essays have influenced your photographic philosophy?

Charles Harbutt [Actuality Inc.]

Below the fold are some of my favorite passages.

“Photography is not art because the basic impulse of the photographer is diametrically opposed to the basic impulse of the artist at least in one large respect. The artist tries to bring into existence something new that never had concrete existence before. The photographer tries to bring into existence something new that preserves something that already has concrete existence but will cease to exist in just that way in the next moment or day or year.”

“Time. Photography is deeply related to time. It wants to stop time. It wants to lay claim to immortality. To cheat death. In a way, because photographs of Lincoln exist, not all of him dies. We can still reclaim some surface parts of a particular moment of his Iife. His real face produced the Iines in the image.”

“When Jacques-Henri Lartigue was a Iittle boy and ran out of film, he would blink his eyes at anything he saw that he wanted to remember and then sketch it in his diary. The reverse is more Iike a camera. If you close your eyes, turn your head left or right, up or down, then, saying click, open and close your eyes very quickly, you wilI experience the photographic moment. It’s Iike that inside a camera when the shutter clicks.”

“Photographs come from that moment in the process of cognition before the mind has analyzed meaning or the eyes design and at which the experience and the person experiencing are fully, intuitively, existentially there. Such images look like photographs, not paintings- there is a tremendous sense of stopped time, of the blinking shutter, of being alive and still there, of discovery (rather than analysis), of chance, not design, of quick emotion from an uncertain cause. Photography is at its best when it deals with the very act of seeing in itself and not with recollections in tranquility or dilettantism of design.”

“The basic problem is to find out what things mean through direct perception of what is, even though that perception will be colored by what we think we know. We cannot escape who we are, but we can make an effort to let reality be itself, to be open to what the world outside our heads is on its own terms.”

“Photographic design is more related to jazz than to formal, classical composition. It is a spontaneous, instinctive, even subconscious act, not rigidly thought out.”

“The photographic goal, flows from the nature of the medium. Photography is the only medium that originates in and is caused by the real, historical. time-space event of a collision between a man, a camera and reality.”

“If you want to judge a good photograph, ask yourself: Is life Iike that? The answer must be yes and no, but mostly yes.”