Charles H. Traub on Sunglasses and Jackie O

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LunchtimePhotography by Charles H. Traub

The legendary photographer talks 70s street style and celebrity culture

In the late 1970s, photographer Charles H. Traub would spend his lunchbreak with his camera, wandering around the streets surrounding New York's Light Gallery (then, on 7th and 5th in New York) and taking pictures of the people he felt drawn to. During a time long before street style became mainstream and before the world had mastered the graceful art of the sidewalk pose, Traub captured a disarmingly intimate insight into the characters he captured on his Rolliflex. To celebrate the imminent publication of his new book Lunchtime – a catalogue of some of his favourite snapshots from the period – we spoke to Traub to discover why he prefers shooting passers by to Jackie O and what he thinks about dressing to impress.

On the passing show of the street...
“I have the facility to approach people graciously, and they seemed to be cooperative. People want to be recognised, people want to be seen. If someone wears a nice pair of sunglasses, they’ve picked them for a reason. Most people kind of adored being noticed, and stopped, and taking a brief minute at lunch time to engage. I think there were no caricatures, there was no negative attention involved in it. Just capturing the passing show of the street. And I think we all walk down the street with that same sense of wonderment or curiosity that is expressed within the photos, but we might be afraid to say it.”

On sartorial individuality...
“Today, people are suspicious of the camera in a way that they weren’t back then, and they think you’re exploiting them. People used to love every engagement that I made, and I wasn't interested in any artifice of the camera. These days, everybody looks alike. I was in Italy a few weeks ago, and everyone dresses the same: the same blue jeans, the same shoes. In the 70s, people were still conscious of a sartorial individuality. Today, most people pretend to not be interested, although everybody considers what they put on for a reason. Whether you put on a T-shirt, or whether you put on a coat and tie, you’re much more conscious than you probably want people to believe you are."

On the prevalence of sunglasses...
"It was the 70s, and everyone had just started wearing sunglasses because Jackie Kennedy did. She was very famous for wearing sunglasses all the time. She created the style of wearing glasses – well it started in the 60s, but no one started doing it in that way until she did it; that was part of her look. Also, there was this thing in the 70s of wearing big glasses... I understand that look is coming back into fashion!"

On celebrity...
"Back then – not to be ethnocentric – 57th and 5th was the centre of the world; everyone passed through there. One day, I was out in front of the Light Gallery, directly across from Tiffany’s, and there was a gaggle of paparazzi crawling all over somebody who was getting into a limousine; it was Jaclyn Smith, a Charlie’s Angel or someone. And I’m on the other side of the street with my camera actually on a tripod, and people would say, ‘what’s going on, what are you photographing?’, and I’d say, ‘I’m not a part of that, I have no interest in celebrities. I just wanted to capture ordinary people. But then, who walks by but Jackie Kennedy, right in front of my camera, and says, ‘if you need to take my picture, please be quick’. I'm stunned! This is the most famous woman in the world at that time, without question."

"The point is, everybody wants to be photographed. Everybody wants to be treated that way" – Charles H. Traub

"All these idiots across the street are crawling all over a minor movie star, but if you just stay in one place long enough, everybody will pass you by. I said to her, ‘I’m not here for that purpose’ – I really wasn’t, I really didn’t want to do celebrities. She thanked me and she walked on, and I’m laughing at myself like, ‘you idiot, you could have photographed the most famous woman in the world in the same way you're photographing everyone else.’ No sooner had I said that, John Lennon and Yoko Ono walked past – I didn’t do them, either! The point is, everybody wants to be photographed. Everybody wants to be treated that way."

Lunchtime by Charles H. Traub is out September 7, published by Damiani.