Charles Harbutt

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Charles Harbutt

Sometimes you don’t see what the picture really is until after you’ve taken it.

– Charles Harbutt

As a kid, Charles Harbutt loved to entertain his friends with magic tricks. His life changed forever though, when he began photographing sporting events for his high school newspaper. It provided him with an excuse to skip sports, but photography would also enable him to explore his life-long fascination with perception and illusion.

His big break came in 1959, when he was invited to document the Cuban Revolution for Fidel Castro’s newspaper, Revolucion. Harbutt jumped at the chance, despite not speaking a word of Spanish. In Havana, during his first few days on assignment, he saw dead bodies and spent a night a prison, but, despite the political turmoil, everyone seemed hopeful and spoke of the positive changes the revolution would bring.

Harbutt was exhilarated and his new found passion for photojournalism would take him all over the world. He would work for major magazines and was twice elected president of Magnum Photos.

Chocolate Perez, Merida, Yuc. © Charles Harbutt
Quai Voltaire, Paris © Charles Harbutt
X-Ray Man, Gare Montparnasse, Paris, 1973 © Charles Harbutt
Woman & Train, Providence, RI © Charles Harbutt
Blind Boy, New York, 1961 © Charles Harbutt

In 1981, Harbutt became disenchanted,  leaving Magnum to focus on his personal work. His book, Departures and Arrivals is made up of point and shoot images of people going about their normal, everyday lives. Shapes and reflections interested him, as did the expressions on people’s faces. 

Gradually my pictures became more about what I experienced in my day-to-day wandering and not so much about subject. They started to be about the shapes and forms I was seeing and drawn to, suggesting content different from their subject matter.

– Charles Harbutt

Documenting what he saw while out wandering the streets, his photographs would often surprise him.

Once again, magic was playing its part in his life.

Recommended Reading

Departures and Arrivals


Affordable volume compiling Charles Harbutt’s favourite photographs taken throughout his career.



Regarded as one of the best books about photography in general due to Harbutt’s insightful writing and observations. Expensive but well worth checking out if you can!

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