Having lost his wife and adrift in the Midwest, Charles Traub now again faces death in a  foreign country, this time it is Vietnam. It was the height of the war. LBJ was pouring troops into Asia.

“The army was the worst of the worst,” he says in his  Brooklyn Rail interview. “It was a time when they were making a point of drafting college graduates. My whole company was educated and we were all going as infantryman straight to Vietnam. As luck would have it, I was a point-man with a shotgun! But fate was watching over me: two weeks before departure, in a practice battle I was beset with a bad case of diarrhea. I took the wrong medicine and the captain threw me out. I was ‘back on the block.’ What luck! I called Aaron Siskind in Chicago and told him I wanted to study photography as a graduate student. He said, ‘Okay, Bud, come on out.’ And the rest is history.”

You may remember that Charles and his wife Susan had taken one class in photography in college, in the last semester before they graduated from Illinois and went to Training in Utah. “It was an elective photography class,” Charles emailed me. “I thought it might be useful to know the medium for our Peace Corps adventure. That was the beginning of my pursuits.”

Free of the draft, he was able to follow his own dream and studied with Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design.

“He [Siskind] taught me that photography was about ideas, not just picture-taking. That was the world that I understood, aspired to, and focused on. It wasn’t the photo world of journalists who travel the world. Although we were always a little envious of them. Ours was a world of committed practice to what the camera could do as a creative art form.”

Again, an ‘accident’ changed his life. Charles, in his early years as a photographer, once used a lens shade one size too small for his square-format camera.  The vignetting caused by the mistake emphasized the intimate perspective of the photographer’s vision.  The square format and proximity to his subjects charged his images with an immediacy that celebrated the character of the times. Marvin Heiferman in his essay, What’s Goin’ On, further explains Charles Traub’s individualistic style. ”Photography gave Traub the freedom to get close, really close to people which, given the narcissism of the time, was an opportunity they mostly welcomed.  Making pictures was a way for him to punch up and elevate his every day experience, and to capture the humor, friction, and sexiness of a hyperactive and visual world characterized by the sheen of polyester, the buzz of conflicting patterns, conspicuous displays of head and body hair, and unexpected and beautiful interactions of shadows and light.”

Charles would go onto receive his master’s degree at the Institute of Design in Chicago.  From 1971 to 1978, he developed and chaired the Department of Photography at Columbia College in Chicago.  In 1978 he moved to New York City where he directed the prestigious Light Gallery.  And now, for the past 20+ years, while continuing to work as a photographer, Charles Traub has been chair of the MFA Photography, Video, and Related Media Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York. His work has been exhibited and collected by numerous institutions.  He has edited, co-edited, and written many books on photography, its history and critical thought, most recently, Education of a Photographer, In the Still Life and In the Realm of the Circuit.  Last fall, at the Gitterman Gallery in New York City, there was an exhibition of his work, My Creation: Photographs 1967-1990.

Charles Traub is a man who nearly 50 years ago, on a rainy night in Addis Ababa, stepped out of a LandRover in a hotel parking lot, turned one way when his new wife turned another, and that made all the difference in the lives of these two Peace Corps Volunteers.

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