Through the Lens: Charles H. Traub


One glance at Charles H. Traub’s striking black and white or eye-popping color photographs, and it’s clear that life is far more lively and beautiful though his eyes. Whether it be walking the pavement of city streets or perusing sandy beaches, Traub captures everyday people in an ‘in-your-face’ manner that allows us to see the humor in humanity. 

We were fortunate enough to not only feature photographs from his collection, “The Chicago Period” in Issue Three, but also talk to Traub about his work and his memories from his time spent in the Windy City during the ‘70s. Of course, that only made Us want to know more about the man who said he’s “mostly interested in the intimacy that one could get by really acknowledging that people were being photographed.” Luckily, Traub was more than happy to share his story and, we have to say, some of his answers have only made us want to ask him more: How come he’d like to be fisherman? And why in Montana? Questions for another time...


Photo from Charles H. Traub's "The Chicago Period" featured in Issue Three of  Us of America

Photo from Charles H. Traub's "The Chicago Period" featured in Issue Three of Us of America

How would you describe your work?

Throughout my career I had basically just been curious about what can be seen and recorded with a camera. It really hasn’t made much difference whether that which I observed was a face an object, a plant, an environment, a simple anecdote, but mostly my pictures about juxtaposition between what is observed and my interaction with it. At present, I am mostly working in color (because it is more in resemblance to reality), recording digitally the irony and global happenstance of the cities and places in which I happen to find myself. I have no real project except to record, what I call, Taradiddles - little white lies of everyday circumstance. Everything is out of context when the camera’s frame captures it, thus it has no real fact as a photograph, but it may indeed tell some truth.    


What’s your go-to camera? 

I have used many different cameras. Up and until the late 1990s I used mostly medium formats - either a Rolleiflex SL66 or the Plaubel Makina 67. Thereafter I often used point-and-shoots analogue and digital, and sometime around 2002/3 I went towards a more high-end professional digital cameras. 


Do you have a favorite anecdote from your time capturing Chicago in the ‘70s?

Yes, I photographed a very attractive sexy woman on Michigan Ave. who actually did a number of poses for me. In the course of a few minutes she revealed she was an ex-Playboy bunny and that she loved to be photographed. I ended up with a number of funny and suggestive frames of her. Couple of years later, in my Solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago, a picture of her was on display. It revealed one very subsenative breast protruding through her sweater like a cyclop. Just before the opening the curator called me to tell me we had to take the picture down, as an Institute board member walked through the gallery and had revealed it was his wife and thought it had not been appropriate. I acquiesce in order not to cause trouble to the curator. A day later the woman called and in great excitement explained how much she liked the picture, as did her husband, she exclaimed that Esmeralda was showing but not Veronica (her husband’s nicknames for her breasts) at any rate they wanted to buy the pictures for what was a good deal of money for me at the time. 


As a photographer, what do you find so appealing about America’s streets? Why do you think they’re the source of inspiration, creatively, for so many people? 

Historically I think the appeal of the American scene, and particularly in New York or Chicago, was the great confluence of many types of people moving expeditiously amongst each other, only momentarily connected. That said, the street of everywhere and anywhere are great. I just happened to be in the US, but I love working in Italy, China or wherever. There always exciting pictures to be made - what I call “real world witness”. The term street photography is really not a good one. But it is used just because so many wonderful candid pictures can be made on the byways of the photographer’s movement. Indeed I believe Joel Meyerowitz is absolutely wrong - if you use that term such photography is certainly not “dead”.


Photos from Charles H. Traub's "Lunchtime" collection

Photos from Charles H. Traub's "Lunchtime" collection

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 16.00.20.png
Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 15.59.38.png

You’ve dedicated a lot of your time to educating others about the art of photography. What have you found to be the most rewarding experience of your career and/or a most proud of achieving? 

As I was very lucky to encounter wonderful mentors - Meatyard, Siskind and Winogrand to mention some - I found real purpose in photographing and a new intelligence that photographic had to offer understandings of culture, ideas and humanity. The lens based image is the matrix for almost all of our communication, and I am proud to have helped educate two generations of students - creative interlocutors - who bring enlightened understanding to our visual literacy. 


If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be? 

A fisherman in Montana.


Song of choice for your American road trip? 

American Pie by Don McLean but also because of the tranquility and meditative state it produces, I often play experimental contemporary classical music.


Lastly, what does freedom mean to you?

American freedom - first and foremost is the ability to express myself without a political censorship. That said the best example of the American Ideals rests with my hero - Ulysses S. Grant - a great General, a great President, and a great writer - a man from humble circumstances, most maligned and even for a hundred years basically forgotten. The story of his life is the great American story. I have tried to depict part of it in my iBook NO PERFECT HEROES: PHOTOGRAPHING GRANT - reading quotes therein will give the reader the best idea of my values. By the way, Grant’s Personal Memoirs are considered by the great literati one of the great pieces of nonfiction literature of the 19th century.


Words: Emily Freedman