CHARLES H. TRAUB. NO PERFECT HEROES
by Steve Bisson



© Charles H. Traub, General Grant National Memorial, New York City, NY, 2011. From the series 'No Perfect Heroes'

In the essay 'Metabolism of Photographic Truth in the Digital Age' of 1994 you wrote «the further time takes us from the moment recorded, the more meaningful the image becomes as an artifact of history.» In another writings and books you have well anticipated several ongoing issues about photography. Did you ever expect the electronic and digital evolution to go so far?

Charles Traub (CT): Without sounding smug, I was fortunate in the mid 80's to have friends working at the precursor of what is now the Media Lab at MIT. They allowed me to observe their projects; graphic computers that would be considered simplistic today, but which represented in their essence all the possibilities currently in the realm of the circuit. At the time, it became very clear to me that lens-based imagery would quickly morph into the digital form. The MFA program at SVA I founded was based on that vision. The curriculum was digital from the very beginning in 1988. We had a number of early generation digital printers and we were also a beta site for Photoshop, Media 100, and a number of other software start-ups.

A situation in about 1993 comes to mind when I was asked to advise an Ivy League school about redeveloping their art department. They had invited me because the SVA program was already noted as an "early adaptor". When I told them they did not overly need to build darkrooms, print shops, etc. they were aghast. "We know nothing about this digital world. It has nothing to do with art." some of the senior professors exclaimed. I laughed and they said: "how would we integrate it and manage it anyway?" As we walked across their quadrangle, I noticed a building housing the Department of Computer Science; the school in question was a seminal place for the development of new computer imagery. I exclaimed, "Did you ever think to walk into that building and talk to some people there?"

Remaining on the relationship between technology and production / consumption of the image. In your last project 'No Perfect Heroes' you have chosen to enrich a body of images - collected through the United States while on the trail of General Ulysses S. Grant - with other metadata. As stated on your website «'No Perfect Heroes' is a singular synergism of art, history, image, sound and interactivity offering a sensory experience into a remarkable man’s story.» What prompted a skilled and experienced photographer like you to realize such a project? What were the motivations, and what have been the challenges? And above all, what have you learned from this path that you didn't know already? What surprised you?

CT: Art is what humanizes us as an agent that expresses the outcome of our understanding of science, technology, and the liberal arts. Art about art often creates a closed dialogue. Creativity that speaks to the greater issues of cultural evolution and the politics of our daily existence enables one to experience alternative insights to complex conditions of our existence.


© Charles H. Traub, Navy Circle, Vicksburg, MS, 2012. From the series 'No Perfect Heroes'

I have always been interested in history and I had read a biography of Ulysses Grant for another of my projects called 'Still Life in America'. It was inevitable that I would encounter many Civil War sites and memorials on that journey. As I toured them and subsequently photographed them, I began to think deeply about the Civil War and the still prescient issues over which it was fought. States rights, gun laws, racism, and other unresolved conflicts have created stagnation of our civil discourse blinding the nation of its rational realistic thinking.

Grant's life, a remarkable one, a heroic one, has been marred by falsehoods rather than knowledge. Second to Lincoln, he saved the Union and his life story, an epic in itself, couldn't be contrived by fiction. Grant led decisively against the indignant demagoguery of his age. Through photography, I wanted to find out who he was. Reveal it and create an elegy, a visual poem to this overly maligned American hero. I only wish we had a few figures like him in our present political leadership.


© Charles H. Traub, Shirley House, Vicksburg National Military Park, MS, 2012. From the series 'No Perfect Heroes'

One thing that strikes of your personal works is this ability to move from black and white to color, from desecrating visions of society to meditative positions on the landscape, from close and visceral portraits to more detached and lyric environments. I see above all different needs... Today instead I see a lot of photographers not able to feel their present. Maybe they worry too much of what others do. What does it mean for a photographer to find the right voice? What matters most now for an author? Specialization, an original signature or what else? In terms of methodology what differentiate your early works included in 'Object of my creation'?

CT: Essentially, your observations about my work and its movement from the very visceral confrontation to meditative observation are correct. The commonality in my photography is my compulsion to observe the real world. I call myself a “real world witness photographer.” Nothing that I can contrive could be as remarkable as that which I witness. To riff on the late great writer, James Salter; after awhile a time comes when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved by the lens (he said the word) have any real possibility of being real.


© Charles H. Traub from the series 'Positive Negative Landscapes'

The pictures I make are found, as I move not so much from one subject to another, but from one place to another. Looking and curiosity drive me allowing me to make some statement touching on the possibility of knowing something. Walking down a street or in woods, or taking a road trip for the sole purpose of photographing is a privilege! Inevitably discovery begets a new framing of experience, yet another means or way of looking anew. The task for the lens artist is to use the frame, not as the painter does to fill it up, but rather to figure out what to leave out. Everything is already there so it’s a process of elimination. In taking on this self-imposed assignment, it becomes like a game. What can be said with the lens?!


© Charles H. Traub from the series 'Salad days' 

Like many photographers my age, I began as a B&W image-maker. The color processes were more difficult. The grey scale lent itself best to the graphic immediacy that each form or vista offered me as I began to learn how to critically look. B&W is the most reductive form of photography. Again, the frame makes the composition. It organizes the moment by subtraction. The B&W form demanded that I make sure that every tone, shape, and form had a place in the image. Thus, in my earliest work, 'Objects of my Creation', I was exercising myself to observe and to discover the pictorial stage. The object was to make some essential meaningful organization of my own spirit of discovery. Regarding color, it must be noted that in the late 70's, the process itself got more facile for many. I used color to fulfill what I think I already knew; that as a real world witness photographer, color was information and description that the reductive b/w mode denied us.

After a number of years photographing Chicago's beaches and streets, I started working simultaneously in both color and B&W, doing what I call, Street Portraits. I stepped close to individuals and deliberately focused on their deliberate presentation of themselves in everyday life trying to get at the candid moment of their realization of my acceptance of them. Having finished a large body of this work which later became the book 'Lunchtime' and a future one called 'Skid Row', I deliberately moved back in camera space to frame my voyeurism into another kind of compositional dynamic-a street scene with many happenings, anecdotes, and gestures. In this modality, the discipline of what to leave out becomes more strenuous as one is looking at a large moving theatrical play in color. See my book, 'Dolce Via' for the results.


© Charles H. Traub from the series 'Lunchtime' 

No photograph holds a definitive truth. Though, in a body of work, the pursuit of similar ideas of and similar subjects, made in a consistent manner, a collective meaning is found. There is a synergistic experience and the sum is bigger than it's parts. One picture verifies the meaning of the other in a collection of many.

Myopia develops with the insistence that creative people have to stick to one domain, a singular practice that is uniformly the same and predictable. Galleries want to make it simple. Make it big and make it red and it might sell better. Or as was often quoted at the new Bauhaus, the Institute of Design, "Do fifty of them and you'll get a show". This simplification allows for better "branding", less investigation, and more reinforcement for the uninitiated. A good artist always has to challenge themselves to break with what they already know is successful. The artist has to continually search for what can be said with their medium.

When it comes to reflect upon photography I observe that photographers do often quote the same books. Sontag, Barthes, Benjamin, Berger up to theorists of the French postmodernism to name a few. It seems like nowadays beyond the technological progress - which has the sole purpose of its reproduction - there is no room for other interpretations. It's similar to what happens in philosophy where the debate goes on mostly through quotes. What do you think about it? It might seem that compared to those decades of great intellectual ferment today we live in a sort of stasis. Is it really so?

CT: You’ve touched on one of my great peeves. The photography world I matured in consisted of image-makers who were concerned about the medium and its place in culture. They were practitioners, educators, curators, and thinkers. These were people of the 60's and 70's who understood photography as a great art form and one deserving to be recognized as the remarkable expeditious means of universal personal expression. These crusaders came from many different disciplines within the medium itself; documentarians, abstractionists, commercial and experimental image-makers. Remarkably, most of the serious photography community all knew each other or at least of each other, bonded together through the common cause of elevating the medium out of the basement of the art department or the art museum onto the height of Mt Parnassus. So, when it happened, that they succeeded, writers and thinkers outside the immediate practice were feted for their new inquiry on the nature of photography in all kinds of theoretical, philosophical, and psychological manners. The media had been made! In a post ‘Blow Up’ era, the optic concerns were au courant in intellectual circles. Young photographers/artists found legitimacy and were unfortunately often sycophantic and pandering to new authority. The photography curriculum became embedded in every university and while very popular, it quickly became highly academized throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Theory became a driving force behind practice rather than practice begetting theory. The Dons often were more wordsmiths than practitioners legitimizing their positions mimetically in the discourse of postmodern theory. Clearly, thinking about what the medium means is important. All image making is basically conceptual and needs introspection. However, a self-conscious praxis often constipates it.

Not enough is done to support new voices and talents that arise outside of the established institutions. The museums often show the same anointed suspects and their collections mirror each other. Rarely, does an exhibition speculate on the relationships and influences that define the currents of the medium. The collusion between the museum and the gallery is co-dependent, uniting collector and curator through an established commodity. This prevents researchers and thinkers from free uninhibited exploration of new talents and trends. It blesses singular egos rather than the bigger concept inherent in the democracy of lens based imagery and it’s universality. Unfortunately, the critical voices also fail to expound upon ideas outside those already established by a canon of established masters.

Unwittingly, as a teacher, I too have contributed to this situation. The field has gotten very big and there’s still great excitement among young students to explore the lens based media and to gain the kind of notoriety and independence that many of my generation achieved. My department makes every attempt to inform them about the diverse history of the image though as practitioners and thinkers, we are still their models and they are only blocks away from the trading floors of Chelsea. The field needs a critical historiography.


© Charles H. Traub, Chicago Party, from the series 'The Chicago Period: 1968-1977'

With regard to education. Considering your very wide experience that crosses epochal changes and the gradual and exponential spread of photography as mass medium, and images as a language: what are the challenges of today? What would you recommend to a young and passionate student? How do you envision the future of lens-based arts? Does photography still need a definition?

CT: The teaching of photography, lens and screen arts, has to be a progressive pursuit, looking to the future, based on solid knowledge of the expanded history of lens imagery, but also its relationship to a variety of fields. Harking back to the previous question, video/photography and their connection to the Internet cannot feed on their own legacy, their academized history or a canon needing to be constantly challenged.

The lens arts are digital! There will always be some place for the analog practice, but today's student must be totally versant in the cyber practice and the realm of the circuit. The imaginative will learn programming. They will reinvent the possibilities of digital output. They will know how to operate a myriad of devices and programs.

There is no time, at least in a graduate matriculation, to indulge in the older practices, of film and the darkroom. There's too much to learn about digital creativity, its’ production and its’ insemination and more importantly about what it means to make an image, and what constitutes meaning in diverse contexts. The new practitioner needs to be worldy and curious to be original and effective. Literature, music, and science are all parts of visual image understanding. Students must engage images critically from diverse disciplines. Lens imagery does not only exist in the so-called art world. It is a part of science, journalism, commerce, and everyday social communications. Thus, aspiring image-makers should be nurtured to reach out of conventional practices and particularly those anointed by the art world into the realm of transdisciplinary production. Careerism and narcissism are to be discouraged whereas social responsibility and collaboration need to be encouraged.

The realm of the circuit is their studio. They are editors, archivists, assemblers, collectors, craftspeople, gatekeepers, programmers, documenters, gadflies, witnesses, investigators, librarians, bloggers, researchers, and dreamers---artists all. Lastly, practitioners of this New Vision are to be encouraged to be patient, but diligent and dogged. They have to learn that creativity takes practice. When the cellist, Pablo Casals was told by an admirer that he played effortlessly, he angrily replied, "No! You don't see me practicing nine hours a day."

If there is a country beyond US that often returns in your production that is Italy. You wrote a preface to the catalog 'Viaggio in Italia' of Luigi Ghirri. What memories do you have of him as a photographer? You also are the author with Luigi Ballerini of the book 'Italy Observed in Photography and Literature' that has a preface by Umberto Eco. How did you get the idea for this book or «photographic potpourri that delights, page after page»?

CT: In the late 70's to the early 80's, I visited Italy frequently. Oddly, it was a time when many American photographers were preoccupied by the hegemony of our American photographic vision of our own landscape, social, urban, and natural. I was consciously trying to break with the conventional attitudes in my own itinerant, idiosyncratic, personally driven image-maker. What else could be beheld in the lens? Italy was where I found a new muse; the country’s multilayers of culture, the Dolce Vita that had become the cliché of our idea of Italy enamored me. Inevitably, I encountered Italian photography and I found it to be quite something different in attitude from that which the English-speaking foreigner took away from their visits. The visitor’s view was idealistic and romantic. Theirs was gritty and critical. I met unique, local image-makers whom the American establishment knew nothing about. Luigi Ghirri was one such person, a real interlocutor who connected and championed a whole generation of important young Italian practitioners. Ghirri became not only a friend but also a guide to his country’s wonders but also realities of Italy itself. I traveled to a number of places with him, and met a community of like-minded people.


© Charles H. Traub, Kids in red with ice cream, Venice, 1981. From the series 'Dolce Via'


© Charles H. Traub, Watermelon, Naples, 1981. From the series 'Dolce Via'


© Charles H. Traub, Women with cameras, Milan, 1981. From the series 'Dolce Via'

I exhibited his first important American show at Light Gallery in 1980. Sadly, it was dismissed by the New York cognoscente. A remarkable exhibition, innovative, original, and postmodern before we even knew the concept. I don't even believe it got a review. Ghirri though world renowned today, represents that great omission of tastemakers to look outside of their bubble.

The book, 'Italy Observed' was by necessity the artifact of the thinking and understanding gleaned from my witness of Italy. I started collecting works from both Italian and American photographers in order to test my hypothesis regarding the difference between the visitor and the native. I subsequently met Luigi Ballerini when I realized one early morning passing the NYU Department of Romantic Languages and I needed some type of verification of my thesis, which I was speculating found its roots in literature. Ballerini, the Chairman of the Italian department was the perfect collaborator. We worked on the book for several years, understanding that the combination of literature and photography could not just be illustrative of each other, but rather they were co-equal; that when read and seen and understood together became a synergistic experience-a better telling of the story. Once again, this methodology is aligned with the thinking I've stated earlier. The lens arts cannot exist independently and feed only on itself.


Book 'Italy Observed: In Photography and Literature', co-authored by Luigi Ballerini. Rizzoli, 1988.

I picked one image from 'Dolce Via', a journey of Fellinian memory that portraits Italy in the 80's. Could you briefly comment it.

CT: The picture was taken in Amalfi where I arrived by car after an arduous but remarkable drive along the Sorrentine, presented by one iconic vista after another at each great turn in the road. Coming into the city center for the delights of an extended pranzo, I felt I was on a stage set that had been put up for me to photograph. Half naked people unabashedly moving from beach to street to trattoria, milling, playing, flirting, teasing, and even mocking themselves. I made so many good pictures within an hour, I can hardly say that this particular one is the best. Nevertheless, it has become a photograph that people associate with me, with that period in Italy and it's sensual reveal. Everything is on the surface. Adonis and Venus surrounded by their equally arresting companions. It's a hedonistic scene, but at the same time, the participants are at ease with their Baroque configuration, which mimics any number of statues, paintings, and installations that these young people had encountered consciously and unconsciously throughout their entire being. As the writer, Luigi Barzini chronicled, they are 'The Italians'.


© Charles H. Traub, Woman on vespa, Amalfi, 1982. From the series 'Dolce Via'

New York. September 11, 2001 appear so close and distant at the same time. Internet is full of shocking images that to me are still hard to believe. For years through the media we have seen passing images of violence and abuse. That day, however, something happened that has brought our collective imaginary to a higher level of engagement. I wonder how the power of the image and its "spectacularization" is defining and sometimes condemning reality... Considered one of the seminal examples of crowdsourcing, digital production and online distribution of universally produced imagery 'here is new york: a democracy of photographs' is a very different and special project. Also as in 'Still Life America' there's a level of interaction. What are your main takeaways of it?

I've written in depth about the exhibition and my understanding of it in Alessandra Mauro's book, 'Photo Show' published but Contrasto. I reference this because there's so much to say, but in brief, the exhibition represented the best intentions of all that participated in it. Photographers, editors, lay image-makers, artists, lawyers, doctors, firemen, and policemen, everyday people from anywhere and everywhere-volunteers all - creative interlocutors. They made a living and active memorial that sprung up out of their need to express themselves, lay if you will, a stone at the grave. hiny had no real political objective and it was an accessible, a partakable experience for all of us who needed to mourn. Unlike many photographic exhibitions and expressions, it was not about a single ego. It demonstratively said, "Every view has meaning". What was most important, was that the collective body of imagery made a more definitive and perhaps more verifiable statement than any single image or body of work by a so-called photojournalist or professional witness. An image is not worth a thousand words, but a thousand images of the same thing have veracity. hiny was a remarkable solality. People came together in an unselfish fellowship. In a field where individual egos rage, it was a consolation to be functioning with a common goal to reveal uncensored and basically uncurated this otherwise incomprehensible inhumanity. My only regret is despite all the good intentions of this show and of the spirit it generated, this country, this city, and our field itself reverted back to the same old vested interests inherent in the image as commodity.

You have published several books during your career. Today I feel among photographers some performance anxiety? What advice do you have to give ...

CT: Presently there is a great proliferation of books of photography good and bad. Getting one commercially published is of course as daunting as it has ever been. Historically publishers wanted to make books of established figures with subject matter of great public appeal. In the mid 20th century there were a few venturesome independent editors/publishers who created some ground breaking volumes. Such monographs have become of great value. Every photographer hopes to produce such a classic, but it is pay to play.


Book 'Dolce Via', Introduction by Max Kozloff, Dialogue by Luigi Ballerini. Damiani 2014.

Throughout my career, not unlike many others, getting a book into circulation has been an arduous frustrating and expensive venture. No real profit was made on any of the ten books. But be assured that publishers rarely lose any real money. To this day, I am miffed by two facts: first that editors and publishers always seem to have nice clothes, good cars and impressive offices. Secondly, they always claim that the kind of book you are presenting has no market or is simply not their cup of tea. Inevitably a few months later, something similar to yours in subject or style will be circulating from the publishing house that rejected you. Finally, despite the publishers’ concern that photo books are too costly, don’t sell etc., big houses still produce them.

Fortunately, young photographers today have many options if they have a good body of work, persistence, and some financial resource to edit print, and design their own venture. The technology of the computer and the realm of the circuit offer many opportunities for self-publishing. There is no longer a stigma against it. The big issue is, not how to produce the book but how to publicize and distribute it. There simply are not enough independent distributors that work with individuals and there’s a dwindling number of book stores and outlets.

The future lies with the iBook and print on demand resources. We are just at the verge of the pictorial iBook becoming universally acceptable. It is a marvelous form when you consider that you can combine sound, voice, image and text and circulate the book for very little cost. The trick is getting people to know about it. I recently did such a book on Ulysses S. Grant, a eulogy of for this remarkable overlooked man, 'No Perfect Heroes: Photographing Grant'. It has received considerable review and praise though its circulation is not what I would like. To get that, I need to invest personally in publicity and branding. Ultimately, there is no problem in producing a quality photographic volume online; it’s a matter of intention and being smart about how to use available technology. The image-maker no longer needs the conventional authorities, publishers and systems of distribution of the 20th century.

Technology has always been integrally connected to human expression. This is a basic assumption of your book 'In the Realm of the Circuit: Computers, Art, and Culture'. I agree with this though some philosopher sustain the thesis that for the very first time we are actually serving technology rather than the opposite. I feel we are still at very early stage of a digital culture. Can we raise a critical awareness of all this or are we just chasing the footprints left by someone with whom we cannot speak?

CT: In the 1990's, I used to say, that we practice in the virtual world to work in the real or analog one. For instance, we used flight simulators to train as pilots. Today! The situation is completely reversed. I think we probably practice in the "real" world for working in the virtual one. Practically everything we do as humans is managed in one way or another by the zeros and ones. There is a complete weld of intention and outcome in the realm of the circuit. It is a little quaint that some thinkers want to hold on to a discourse that is devoid of the realities of our cyber intercourse. As my book indicates, I have always been concerned about the luddites. I urged at the time of its writing in 1999, that the dilemma presented by the development of new technology was that it was programmed and designed by engineers and technocrats. Those working in the humanities and arts often vociferate the programmers and designers rather than enjoining with them to humanize our involvement with technology. If we are not to be at the mercy of an impersonal programming, it is incumbent upon the erudite to do it. We all need to learn programming. It needs to be completely integrated into our study of the traditional liberal and plastic arts, allowing the best values to be championed by the inevitable march of technology.


© Charles H. Traub from the series 'Taradiddle'

In your article 'Digital Humanism' (february 2011) I read «We are no longer anticipating a revolution. It has already happened. It is time to build on its promise, transcend the inevitable losses, and become more comfortable, more human, with the change now wrought.» How do we invert the loss of content in our conversation and communication?

CT: I'm not sure we've lost that much content. Certainly, our attention span is shorter in regard to what we are willing to engage and how long we're willing to engage. The cause of that is likely that there is so much more information coming at us continually competing for our attention. With this condition in mind, I never cease to wonder at how my network of relationships has expanded through the realm of the circuit. For example, I have reunited with old friends, share ideas and images regularly with colleagues and an audience that otherwise would not have any opportunity to read or see what I have to offer. My cell phone is a magical source of reference, verification, reminder of issues, names, titles, etc. I cannot possibly imagine myself without that ready connection to finding a contact, place, or article.

Your concern in asking the question lies in the degree of which individuals are willing to question, research, and rethink what they are saying and what is being said to them irrespective of the medium that is delivering the message. Curiosity is what leads an individual to learning and knowing. Belief is simply something different than knowing. Facts are facts until they are disproven otherwise. Are we willing to verify? It takes time, energy, and focus. The disciplines that aid this are why we value traditional liberal arts, in learning what it means to be human, a participant in a community that values ideas, creativity, and discovery.

Last book you enjoyed?

CT: 'The Swerve' by Stephen Greenblatt Ph.D., a remarkable scholar and delightful writer sums up in this very readable book everything that I have enumerated here in a remarkable intellectual journey. Please see description attached and by the way, the audiobook read by the actor, Eduardo Ballerini, makes the text even more enjoyable.

One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted both an innovative work of history and a thrilling story of discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it.

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, 'On the Nature of Things', by Lucretius―a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.


Book, Lucretius, DE RERUM NATURA. Oxford: Anthony Stephens, 1683

The copying and translation of this ancient book-the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age-fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson. 

Finally what are you working at ...

CT: As you know, I'm the Chairman of a major graduate department in the lens and screen arts. That makes me an administrator and a teacher. Those dual roles take a lot of time!

I have two projects that I'm presently developing. A new book called, Skid Row with 80 street portraits of the inhabitants of such places in the late 70's, black and white, confrontational, but ennobling images to tell us something about human dignity and remind us that there for the graces go I. The other project is contemporary color work I've made from everywhere and anywhere that addresses the idea that all photographs are in a sense a little white lie. These are funny, anecdotal images of the human condition that I call tarradiddles. Both can be seen on my website.

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LINKS:
Charles Traub
urbanautica United States