“As we walk up and down streets in big cities you look at people, you exchange glances,” says Charles Traub. “There’s something nice about being noticed, whether it’s a slight flirtation or just a feeling that in another context you’d like to know someone.” Long before the cult of street photography became somewhat hackneyed, Charles was on the streets of Chicago and New York picking out faces from the stream of passers-by. During his lunch breaks when working at Columbia College Chicago and New York’s Light Gallery in the late 1970s, Charles would stand on busy street corners with his Rolleiflex and wait for the world to walk past. Between 1977 and 1980 he took some 400 portraits of strangers with disarming and revelatory intimacy, and his favourites have just been published in his new book Lunchtime.
Drawn to elements of whimsy, strange coincidences and style tribes, there was a deliberate spontaneity and humanism to Charles’ method. There was also nothing surreptitious about it. “Nothing about it was covert,” he explains. “Part of it, to be honest, was a kind of game. Can I photograph this person? Can I get to know this guy? Can I actually be a stranger and break down the barrier between two passing people? I think largely it’s an impulse that we all have. We would like to be able to reach out more and I think the camera is a vehicle for doing that. This was a big camera as well, it wasn’t a little sneaky snapshot camera.” Increasingly both camera-obsessed and wary at the same time, you can imagine how people today would respond to a man stationed on the street corner with his tripod with certain distrust.
“I didn’t want to engage in any contrived posing or artifice,” he goes on. “The camera was right there, they came up to the camera, I asked them if they would stop for a second so I could take a photo, and they said yes. Click.” And it worked. Shot seconds before self-consciousness had the chance to kick in, the photographs are infused with a fleeting joyousness, and hardly anyone ever said no, save for a man in cowboy boots who responded with a kick. In fact, it was Charles who said no to none other than Jackie Kennedy, shortly followed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. “Jackie Kennedy once stopped and said, “If you want to take my picture, please be quick,” and I said no. Just moments later Yoko Ono and John Lennon walked by and did the same thing. I took neither of their pictures because that wasn’t what I was there to do. I avoided celebrities.” Charles was an anti-paparazzo, you could say.
“Jackie Kennedy once stopped and said, ‘If you want to take my picture, please be quick,’ and I said no. I avoided celebrities."
The lushly saturated series was also one of Charles’ first forays into colour photography. “I had taken very few colour photos prior, but I realised to really see the world, if you will, or to document it in terms of human information, that colour was essential.” Aside from its brilliant cast of eccentrics, part of the appeal of Lunchtime is in its excellent and dated hues. All those trademarks of 70s style, from the oversized glasses, zealously hairsprayed coifs, exaggerated shirt collars, and smudged, kohl-rimmed eyes would lose some of their power were it not for their vibrancy.
Ultimately, these photographs are a collection of brief intimacies between faces on the street. “All photographers are collectors,” Charles tells me. “We’re all trying to find out who’s out there, what’s out there, and to see it and grab a hold of it, even if for a fraction of a second.” They are also, perhaps first and foremost, about appearances; how we judge ourselves and others, the way we dress and the social types we subscribe to, and the desire to be noticed. “Oscar Wilde said ‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible,’ and that was really the kind of mantra I operated with.”