Between 1977 and 1980, whenever Charles H. Traub could take a break from work or running errands, he’d head down to the street with his Rolleiflex SL66. When someone caught his eye, he’d ask to photograph them, eventually capturing almost 400 people. While many were in Chicago, most were near 57th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York, “then the crossroads of the world,” Traub told the Cut. “My supposition was that if you stayed there long enough, everybody would pass by, sooner or later.” More or less, he was right — read on to hear who he ran into while photographing, and click through the slideshow to see a selection of portraits from his new book, Lunchtime.
Why did you initially start taking these portraits?
I was really interested in what they call the presentation of self in everyday life, which was also the title of a book by the sociologist Erving Goffman. He made the point that we’re all performers, presenting ourselves with a kind of mask, though the mask is really us. It’s an agreed-upon identity, if you will, from both the person presenting it and the person interacting with them. I was interested in that mutual moment of recognition when you pass someone on the street and you look at them and they look at you — that 1/25th of a second when everything’s relaxed and just the real surface of things.
The photos are all taken very up close. Did people respond negatively to that at all?
No, almost never. I’d tell them, I’m really interested in your face, how your lipstick matches your hat, the bushiness of your eyebrows, and they’d go, Well, thank you! The picture really was taken at the moment of consent. I think they knew by my demeanor that I wasn’t trying to exploit them. People want to be acknowledged, and when they see somebody who looks serious about being a picture-maker or whatever, they’re kind of flattered by that moment of attention. I really was quite endeared with everybody that I photographed, and I wanted to represent them as one would encounter them, face to face.
I also saw it as the theater of the street, the passing show of curious types, of normal people presenting themselves in everyday life. Though there are a few celebrities: William Holden is in there — but when I stopped him I didn’t figure out who he was — and some famous photographers like Mary Ellen Mark.
Did you find that the famous people reacted differently to the camera?
No, not really. One day I was photographing at 57th and Fifth and across the street a gaggle of paparazzi was photographing Jaclyn Smith, a Charlie’s Angel at the time, getting into a limousine. I thought that was sort of disgusting, and I didn’t want anything to do with it. And who walks by me but Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who stops in front of the camera and says, “Well, if you must take my picture, please be quick.” I said, “No Mrs. Onassis, I’m not part of that.” That was the most famous person in the world who had just passed and I laughed at myself, when who walks by the other way but John Lennon and Yoko Ono. They did the same thing, and I didn’t take their picture. [Laughs.] I regret it today, but the point is that everyone really does want their picture taken in some way, if they think it’s for something important. Everyone was gracious.
Do any other people stick out in your memory?
It’s funny, you get so preoccupied with looking. In New York I saw a woman coming down the street who looked very motherly and nice, and I thought, That’s someone I ought to photograph. After probably a fraction of a second, I realized it was my own mother. [Laughs.]
This interview has been edited and condensed.