TWO LOOKS: Charles Harbutt and Joan Liftin

Rebecca and I deeply respect both Charles Harbutt and Joan Liftin as photographers, as teachers, and as editors/book makers.  When we first started exploring the notion of putting together our joint Cuba book, we sought out Charles’ and Joan’s opinions, and one of Joan’s suggestions about the sequence of the opening spreads significantly improved the book.  Their advice tends to illuminate and to cut straight to the heart of the matter, often tinged with a delightful sense of humor.  Our work –– and our lives –– have been enriched by knowing them.––Alex Webb


Charles Harbutt, 1975

Charles Harbutt, 1975

I love this picture of Charlie’s because it’s light as air, as ephemeral as the moment that produced it, a curl of smoke and rays of light in a shuttered hotel bedroom in Arles, 1975.

The photo is introspective and inviting, even dreamy, containing the strong hint that it is the result of just one too many tokes.  We can’t read the picture on the wall but it provides balance and mystery.

But who ARE those people in the smoke?––Joan Liftin


Joan Liftin

Joan Liftin

When I first saw this picture, I felt immense loneliness. I think it let me feel what Joan was feeling in that desolate British Railways compartment rattling down to London to go to her father’s funeral. The wild trees outside. The bird at first seems poignant, fleeing. Then I realize the picture is about the bird. Not fleeing so much as flying free outside the sadness. The picture is a Zen metaphor if Zen has metaphors. You can’t feel what someone is feeling when they giggle at a joke, or say “I love you.” But with her picture you can see (and feel) what she saw and felt. Anyway all that is what I like about this picture of Joan’s.––Charles Harbutt

Joan Liftin, often mistaken for Marilyn Monroe, is the author of ‘Drive Ins”.  She was Director of  Magnum’s Photo Library and Chair of ICP’s Documentary Education Program.  She has edited a number of photo books.

Charles Harbutt has published two books and one monograph of his work: Progreso: Navarin Editeur, Paris, 1986 (English edition: Actuality Inc., NYC, 1987); Charles Harbutt: I Grandi Fotografi: Editoriale Fabbri, Milan, Italy: 1983; Travelog: MIT Press, Cambridge, 1974. For the first 20 years of his photographic life, Charles Harbutt was a photojournalist, working mostly through Magnum Photos (of which he was twice president). In the past year, he exhibited at the Bibliotheque Nationale, the Vienna Museum and Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. He is currently an associate professor at Parsons, the New School for Design where he has never been mistaken for Joe DiMaggio.

For more about them and their work go to:

In the comments section this week, Alex and I are asking for suggestions for our next FotoForum (our first one was “On Fear and Photography, Oct. 5, 2009).  Thanks in advance for your suggestions.––Rebecca Norris Webb

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4 Responses to “TWO LOOKS: Charles Harbutt and Joan Liftin”

  1. David Bacher Says:

    Hi Alex and Rebecca,
    This suggestion for a future FotoForum stems from a recent response by Alex on the Burn site and it is one of the words that he used during the workshop. That is “obsession” in regards to the photographic process. This could be attributed to one’s development as a photographer, ie. finding his or her own way of communicating. Is it the point where simply taking photos at random develops into a long term concept that becomes all encompassing? The actual act of taking photos can be obsessive. For instance, when shooting in the street, I sometimes notice that a certain place feels right for a variety of reasons. I might even get few nice shots. But the question is when to stop? Would it be possible to get something better? How about the idea of dealing with a photographic “obsession”, or any obsession for that matter, in a relationship with another person or with one’s own family.


  2. cathy scholl Says:

    I’ve tried to explain this topic in several ways and deleted each attempt.

    Basically what I’m trying to describe boils down to (photographic) regret.
    Missed opportunities…for various reasons.
    Perhaps you can connect it with an experience from your own lives.
    How you deal with it or keep yourselves from experiencing it.

  3. John Masters Says:

    How about “beginnings?” By that I mean what was the catalyst that altered the mind of the photographer from “amateur” to “professional?” The idea of “obsession” could be part of this.

  4. Richard Marazzi Says:

    One of the topics I’ve been curious of late is the world of developing yourself as an artist. How to promote yourself, get work shown in a gallery, get gallery representation, have a book published, earn a living…

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