Famed street photographer discusses newest publication

On October 20, the College welcomed esteemed photographer Charles H. Traub to speak as part of the Human/Nature lecture series. Traub, who, according to his website, has received awards from institutions ranging from the New York State Council on the Arts to the Olympic Arts Organization Committee, declared himself a “real world witness photographer” during the talk.

According to the College’s website, Human/Nature is the humanities theme for the 2015-2016 academic year and aims to “foster interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration” across campus. The website further describes that the theme will “reflect upon nature, the built environment, and the ways in which our relationship to the natural world has shaped human existence. Across humanities this theme will enable us to examine our relationship to nature from antiquity to the present.”

At the beginning of Traub’s talk, he reflected on what the Human/Nature theme means to him, citing a time when his mentor, 20th century photographer and abstract expressionist Aaron Siskind, said: “the only nature I’m really interested in is my own.”

Traub dabbled as a nature photographer during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and said he was “very interested in getting back to nature [at the time]” and that “while nature was the salvation in the 1960s, the essence of civilization is to protect ourselves from nature.” The manifestation of his interest in nature can be seen in his collections “Positive Landscape” and “Negative Landscape.”

Ultimately, however, Traub said his interest in landscapes “did not fulfill my urge to understand nature. I realized that people were the better part of nature that I was interested in.” This realization served as a catalyst for the photography that has since defined Traub’s style and career.

Beginning at the beaches of Chicago, which he described as an “interface between getting away from the big city and the city itself,” Traub started taking black and white photos of the “unabashed behavior” present there.

After exhausting his work at the beaches, Traub noted: “something took me to the street. It was like everything I wanted to find out about in the world was there; my curiosity was sparked by watching people pass on the street.” Thus, Traub made the transition from sand to pavement and took some of the most iconic photographs of his entire career.

Between 1977 and 1988, while he was the Chairman of the Photography Department at Columbia College in Chicago, Traub would venture to the streets at lunchtime and take photographs of people. Again commenting on the College’s theme of Human/Nature, Traub said that he “found the landscape of the street the most productive and exciting place to find out about nature, both human and otherwise.”

Traub was apt at approaching his subjects on the street, receiving “virtually no rejections,” and created a prolific collection of photographs. When Traub began to put al  the photographs together, he said it was a “testament to style, personality, and the encounter itself,” also noting that the most rewarding aspect of taking these photographs was that “in a brief moment, there was a commute between subject and taker. The kind of connection that, frankly, we all want.”

Traub continued to photograph passers-by on the street when he moved to New York in 1978, where he stationed his camera on the corner of 57th street and 5th Avenue: “the center of the world.” Given his prime location, Traub said, “everyone passed by sooner or later.”

The photographs taken on the street during this portion of Traub’s career resulted in his latest book, Lunchtime, which came out in October of 2015 and was designed by David Schorr.

When an audience member asked Traub if he would compare himself to the popular social media photography account entitled “Humans of New York” (HONY), he said that its work is very different. While HONY takes what Traub calls “snapshots” and accompanies the photos with words from an interview, his own work revolved around “street portraits.” The key difference between the two types of photography, according to Traub, is that the portraits are more curated and involve “a moment of recognition that is not casual.” Ironically, Traub was once interviewed by HONY while at a café in New York.

The way in which HONY supplements his photographs with words led Traub to analyze the old adage: “a picture says a thousand words.” Traub said that while he is “quite convinced that one picture probably cannot say what a thousand words can say,” he does think that each portrait can and should tell a story. “Each face is a personality, each face is an encounter,” he said.

When students asked Traub what he thinks aspiring photographers should focus on, he said that it is essential to explore the question of “what makes us human and how can we manage all of the imagery that we take today?” Should the current generation use its creative energy to gather and filter all photographs that get taken, subsequent collections will “begin to tell us a bit about human nature,” according to Traub.

Traub also briefly discussed his book Dolce Via, a collection of pictures taken in Italy in the early 1980s that, like his other works,  “represent the presentation of self in everyday life.”

Currently, Traub is working on a collection of photographs of “people in their environments,” called “Still Life in America.”

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