Political and the Personal

Charles Harbutt's superb eye is displayed at Center for Creative Photography

In 1959, at the age of 23, Charles Harbutt was summoned to Cuba to document the revolution.

He was a photographer and writer at the Catholic magazine Jubilee, and supporters of Fidel Castro had been impressed by his series on Puerto Rican migrant workers in the U.S. When a member of Castro's circle called to invite him to Cuba, Harbutt didn't hesitate. He hopped onto a plane and arrived in Havana on Jan. 2, the day after dictator Fulgencio Batista fled.

Within 24 hours, Harbutt had photographed bodies of revolutionaries killed by government troops, slept on a park bench, got hauled off to jail and released, and witnessed idealistic young people his own age surging through the streets.

"This was living," he later wrote. "I was full of the romance and hope for a just and equitable world that a revolution incites. ... If being a photographer would bring me to all this, I would become one."

And so he did. Ever since those exhilarating early days in Cuba—when he captured images of campesinos in the hills, students carrying banners in the cities and Castro himself arriving triumphantly in Havana—Harbutt has not stopped photographing.

For years, he was a photojournalist with Magnum, publishing work with Look, Life, Time-Life and other outlets in the great era of photo magazines. Later, he became disillusioned with journalism after watching government agents dressed as hippies trying to incite violence at a Black Panther rally. Too many events—especially political ones—were staged, he decided. (See Tucson Weekly Dec. 24, 1997 online at http://weeklywire.com/ww/12-29-97/tw_review1.html.) He quit Magnum and turned to more personal, self-directed work.

The big show at the Center for Creative Photography, Charles Harbutt: Departures and Arrivals, covers 53 years of his photos, all of them black and white. Curated by center staffer Leslie Squyres, it's divided into two sections: the smaller one surveys his photojournalism, including his work in Cuba, and the larger brings together 68 fine arts images that were collected for his latest book, also titled Departures and Arrivals.

Both parts of the show make liberal use of new media: You can see a slideshow of 150 photojournalism works, view the Cuba pictures on a regrettably small iPad screen and watch a video about how the images were chosen for the recent book. Magazine clippings and tear sheets are also on display.

The Departures and Arrivals pictures, newly translated into inkjet prints, are Harbutt's "favorite images," Trudy Wilner Stack writes in an afterword to the book. (Wilner Stack, the much-respected former CCP curator, organized a major retrospective of Harbutt's work in 1997, after the center acquired his archive. She makes a welcome return to the center on Thursday, Jan. 16, to speak at Harbutt's artist's talk.)

These favorite pictures range widely over geography, subject and mood. From the American West to Dublin, from Mexico to France and from Italy to Cuba, Harbutt shot landscapes, architecture and evocative still lifes. In this personal work, he clearly relishes the chance to portray people going about the ordinary business of living.

"Aboard Le Mistral, Arles/Paris, France," 1975, is a fleeting glimpse of a single moment in a woman's life. She sits pensively by the window on a train, deep in her own thoughts, apparently oblivious to the man across from her with the camera. The blinds are partially drawn, and the sun slants in strong diagonals across the train carriage, in bands of light and shadow.

"Hotel, Vera Cruz," 1982, is a beautifully composed and cropped image of a Mexican hotel façade. At first, we're caught up in the architecture, the heavy dark wood framing the door and windows, and the reflections in the glass of the ornate colonial buildings across the street. But the picture turns out to be not entirely about geometry and architecture: It's about the young girl inside the hotel who's peering out the lobby window. She seems to be looking out toward the future, looking to see what will happen next.

The photographer puts himself into "Hand on the Steering Wheel, Santa Fe Highway, New Mexico," a classic Western image from 1973. His own hand—and that wheel—dominate the picture, paying homage not only to the pleasure of driving but also to solitude. Through the windshield we can see the open empty road of the endless West, rolling into the horizon.

The still lifes go further into solitude: No humans inhabit them, but we see evidence of people—and their schemes—everywhere. "Crook's Easy Terms, East Liverpool, Ohio," 1984, is a townscape of 19th-century buildings and warehouses underneath a tangle of 20th-century electrical wires. The photographer is clearly charmed by the commercial signs painted on old clapboard and brick, especially the Crook sign, with its alluring white letters tempting the naïve into financial ruin: "Crook's Easy Terms of Credit," it reads. Crook, indeed.

With its layers of peeling movie posters on a fence, "Quai Voltaire, Paris," 1975, reminds me of Aaron Siskind's photos of painted signs on walls in Mexico. But where Siskind made those marks into abstractions, Harbutt transforms his into surrealism. Fragments of pictures on the torn posters coalesce into a single odd image: The outsized eye of a leading man on the bottom poster leaks through the bare thigh and buttock of the femme fatale on the top poster.

The ordinary moments in the Departures and Arrivals pictures are worlds away from the drama in the early journalism. But they're not as different as their subjects suggest. Harbutt's eye is superb whether he's depicting the young, black-bearded Castro standing portentously below a Cuban flag or a middle-aged woman in Dublin carrying her groceries up the walk to her brick row house. He's a master of arresting composition, filling pictures of skyscrapers and gardens and chanting crowds with strong lines and darting diagonals.

Castro and the Irish housewife get the same attention; they are equally part of the human story. As Wilner Stack notes, Harbutt has "the soul of an activist, filled with hopes of justice and wrongs righted or averted. That side of him is quieted in this volume, as it is with age. But all his work takes the position of equality ..."

In his pictures, "the political and the personal, the historical and the happenstance, add up to a big story."