The Daily Heller: Focusing the Third Eye

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Tickety-Boo is brick of a book comprised of smartphone photographs by Charles Traub, chair of MFA Photography and Related Media at the School of Visual Arts. The more than 200 images featured within cover Traub’s everyday ramblings over the last four years. The juxtapositions tell diverse and alluring tales; it is a book for our times.

Enigma is key to Tickety-Boo. The smartphone is a constant companion that enables Traub to be quick and unobtrusive. He benefits from the third eye as a stream of consciousness in his response to places, things and people that catch his eclectic whimsy. His subjects are ambiguous and out of context, yet once organized together within this book, create a kind of pictorial completeness, both soothing and disquieting. The mundane becomes animated, and in the end, this is a book about the delirious conditions of our eerie era. I asked him to talk about how the book took shape.

I did a cursory translation of the word/phrase Tickety-Boo. It seems to have British roots meaning “all things are good, but maybe not.” Is this your understanding? Why did you title this book of iPhone pics Tickety-Boo?
The title, Tickety-Boo, came to me a couple of years ago when I traveled to London, and I was surprised how often I heard the expression. At first it seemed a whimsical response to someone inquiring about another’s condition (sort of “what condition is your condition in?”). Its roots come from the British Raj era. When I realized it wasn’t completely positive, but also contained the “maybe not,” it seemed like an apt phrase for people soldiering through difficult times—the condition our world has been in for the last number of delirious years. By the way, there is an American movie called Merry Andrew, where Danny Kaye sings a song called “Tickety-boo.” It’s a Pollyanna story of a Pollyanna time. We are not in such a time now, thus, I like the enigma of the phrase and its whimsical graphic presence. 

I think of you as a serious documentary photographer (covering the American Civil War, the aftermath of 9/11, etc.), with a distinct, what I’d call poetic, aesthetic and journalistic instincts. How are these seemingly random images consistent with your previous work … or not?
While I have done many projects that could be labeled documentaries—one on Belfast during the troubles, and another examining the condition of the New York waterfront for the Parks Department, and still several others—I have never really used the phrase documentary photographer as a label for myself. In fact, I think the term segregates and stereotypes image makers in an unnecessary way—after all, all photographs are documents of something! Additionally, I try to avoid all those other terms, such as still-life photographer, street photographer, portrait photographer, and particularly the term conceptual photographer (all good artists are conceptual whether their concepts are preconceived or a result of the finished product). I think of myself as a real-life witness, an image-maker who wonders, searches and makes photographs anywhere and everywhere with anything, anybody and everything I might encounter. Lastly, all photographs are still lives frozen in time. 

The book is a collection of deliberate spreads comprised of interrelated and discordant  images that tell stories derived from the perspective of the third eye. Can you describe the process of and decisions in making the book?
I have been photographing with my cellphone for the last five or so years, and really, in this COVID period, have been using it exclusively to make my work. The cellphone is with me always, and thus, is the primary tool of my creativity. It’s never separated from my need to respond to something I see, and is a wonderful tool that allows freedom, spontaneity, flexibility and remarkable quality. 

Having been a photographer for 54 years, I have worn a lot of hats, taken hundreds of thousands of photographs, and looked at millions. At my age, I am free from the outside pressures of making something utilitarian, having to start a new project, or to determine an identity or style. Everything I make is an expression of my knowledge, emotions and concerns. I would like to think there is an idea in each photograph I take that is a synergism of everything that has come before.

As you were shooting did you think in terms of a book or of simply capturing phenomena?
Tickety-Boo is storytelling. The individual pictures tell us something, but a body of work tells us something larger than the sum of its parts. Thus, a book is an ideal vehicle for a photographer’s narrative. While shooting, I am not really thinking about a book or, indeed, how one picture might relate to another. I don’t have to, because I am confident that there will be an associative string of meaning in the work I am doing because of who I am. 

What qualities are more advantageous for you technically? Aesthetically? Contextually?
Social media, particularly Instagram, has been a rapid means of sharing my vision. I use it all the time, almost daily. A story is already being told from months of posting. The creation of Tickety-Boo was the next step—preserve the story with analog permanence. My colleague Blake Ogden and I created hundreds of prints to pin on the walls of my studio to see how it all looked together. Then came the task of editing out those prints that were not as strong or as meaningful as others. We ended up with about 200, and from them, saw correspondence and relationships between one image and another. The pairs, or diptychs, usually shouted at us. We then printed out these pairs and rehung the wall. Staring at this “picture wall” every day (my studio is in my office at the School of Visual Arts) I couldn’t help but find new, and maybe more powerful, connections. This process took a year, with new images coming in all the time and changing any number of pairings. After a while, the strong ones remained steadfast, and everything got paired down to a manageable number for a book. It is then a matter to find what the rhythm will be from start to finish. This requires a lot of push pins! The time comes when you know you must stop and print out a dummy to see what it looks like as a book. Then, more revisions and the search for a publisher. In the end, Tickety-Boo is a story of our time. There is visual logic that reads from the first page to the last.

From where did you draw your images? And what was your richest vein, so to speak?
There doesn’t seem to be a single vein or source of my imagery, except to say that I am struck, wherever I am, with the collision of something happening, left behind, or interacting with something else—whether one human being to another, or displacement of objects, illogical but nevertheless a reality of the happenstance of finding a connection. I am concerned with humor, metaphor and iconography. These are important tools for composing the “stilled life” photograph that is a record of a condition of our culture. We are in a time of disorder and my camera is my means of finding my order for all the disjuncture around us. I feel the delirium. What I see is the way it is, and it’s OK, if you will—but maybe not.