Interview: Charles H. Traub’s Colorful Photos of ’70s-Era Passersby During Lunchtime

Between 1977 and 1980, photographer Charles H. Traub ventured out onto the city streets with his Rolleiflex to document the faces of passersby during lunchtime. Traub, who told Slate he prefers the term “real-world witness” over “street photographer,” framed his shots close and tight, capturing engaging snippets of strangers revealing little bits of themselves through what they wore, the tilt of their heads, a fat cigar pursed between chapped lips, or the flash of a dynamic smile.

The colorful series, which began in Chicago and expanded to include New York and various European cities, was exhibited in the early '80s and later published as a comprehensive monograph appropriately titled Lunchtime.

We were lucky enough to ask the photographer a few questions about Lunchtime and his creative process. Scroll down to read that exclusive interview, lightly edited for content and clarity.

What made you start photographing strangers on the street for Lunchtime in 1977?

I started photographing on the streets of Chicago in 1977 when I took breaks from my position as the chairperson of the photography department at Columbia College of Chicago. It struck me that people in the noontime hour weren't in a particularly good state. Frankly, I wanted to see how many different types and involvements I could collect with the great variety of passersby.

What was it about a subject that caught your eye and made you want to photograph him or her?

It might've been just a gesture of a hand, the color of a scarf, or a flash of a smile that created the opportunity to say, “I'm a photographer, I like how you present yourself. May I take your picture?”

How did you approach your subjects? What were their reactions to being photographed?

People dress and present themselves to be seen. They are flattered when they are acknowledged. Everybody wants to be photographed. It's an affirmation of the individual. In some ways today, selfies are the same kind of thing. “I was there, please see me.”

What moments or impressions did you try to capture when you released the shutter of your camera?

For a brief moment, 1/125th of a second, I become attached to a perfect stranger and they to me. The conventional barriers between strangers are broken down by the camera shutter; the viewer and the observed all come into agreement about connecting. It's kind of magic.

What drove you to continue this series for three years all the way from Chicago to New York and beyond?

I moved to New York to be the director of the Light Gallery. Part of my incentive was always that I knew photographing in NY would be that much more exciting. The “passing show” of the streets of New York was then and is today unlike any place else on earth. Stay in the same place long enough, say like 57th Street and 5th Avenue, and sooner or later, metaphorically at least, everyone will pass by.

Now, looking back at these images decades after you captured them, what are some of your reflections? Any feelings of nostalgia? Comparisons to today's world?

I must say, I look back at these pictures with a kind of delight. I'm not so nostalgic, because they seem very real and present for me still. I sort of remember every engagement and every click of the shutter. A couple of people became acquaintances and even friends.

What saddens me today is people just don't really care about style. That is, what they deeply feel about their being and how they present it. They're more willing to be dictated to by the whims of fashion, rather than the desire to individually express themselves through what they wear or how they carry themselves. No matter where you go, everybody pretty much looks alike. Blue jeans, sneakers, t-shirts, dark and mono-colored coats, and this whether you are in Bangkok, Paris, New York, or Peoria.

Charles H. Traub: Website

My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Charles H. Traub.

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