Looking Back

Charles Traub

November 1, 2023

We asked Charles Traub to tell us about a picture that means something to him, and why. The longtime chair of the SVA’s MFA Photography and Related Media Department, Traub has published his work in more than 20 photo books, most recently Remembrance of Summers’ Past (Interlocutor Press, 2023) and Skid Row (Lazy Dog Press, 2023), portraits of the down and out and dispossessed from the Bowery in New York City and the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago in the 1970s. 

“The great magic of photography,” said Traub in a recent documentary about his work produced by :iidrr Gallery, “is the ability to render something into a picture that comes from reality but is transformed and is evolved in the making of it.”

In the 1970s, as a young graduate photography student at the Chicago Institute of Design, I discovered the great excitement and the ever-present diversity of humanity on the streets and beaches of that great big city. My study of the medium led me to scour the bookshops and libraries that held the history of photography. I looked at everything, but I was profoundly struck when I found the photographs of Lisette Model. They were candid but intimate and frankly unabashed. Model had no fear in her approach. She broke the distance between viewer and subject, revealing both the pathos and humor in the human gesture. Her graphic black-and-white photographs were explicit in their intention to give the audience a surprise – a photograph could ennoble the ordinary. 

Model was way ahead of her time: a woman wandering and photographing on the streets, making pictures at the call of her own muse. Her oeuvre related, at least for me, to the traditions of the Chicago School, which found its roots in the Bauhaus and other European traditions from which she came. Unlike other so-called documentary photographers, she did not stand back. She was aware that the presence of the camera made a difference in how the subject viewed the photographer and the photographer viewed the subject. There was no pseudo objectivity, no omnipotence in her picture taking. Her approach was different from the early traditions of street photography. The character of individuals mattered.This picture, like many of her photographs, is front on. There’s no artifice, just a momentary exchange with the woman sitting. Historical yet timeless, this woman is every woman. This photograph is archetypical of Model’s work, though there are many others I could have picked here, like the famous Coney Island Bather, 1939. The baroqueness that penetrates all of Model’s caricatures unconsciously affected me as I ventured to my first people project – Beach (Horizon Press, 1978) – and subsequently, as I embarked on my own wanderings on the streets of both Chicago and New York, making what I called street portraits. I see now the very important influence of Lisette Model. Clearly, Skid Row owes a debt to her and all of the world of photography is indebted to her as a great teacher.