Photographer Profile - Charles Traub: "Underneath all of this are political values we are still struggling with"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday January 31, 2017

Artist and educator Charles Traub  is known best for his wry color street photography — the kind of work collected in his acclaimed 2015 book Lunchtime, which brought together portraits of the eccentric characters who exchanged glances with him on the streets of Chicago and New York in the early 1970s. Traub, who founded the photography department at Columbia College in Chicago and is the chair of the MFA Photography, Video, and Related Media Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York, says that he sees himself as a “real world witness” image maker. “That is, I am interested in whatever happens in the passing show of real time, real space, and real events,” he noted in a 2015 interview.

That makes his new ebook, No Perfect Heroes, something of a surprise.

The book features black-and-white photographs of landscapes and locations relating to the life of Ulysses S. Grant, the United States Army general who defeated Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy in the Civil War and later became the 18th president.

“It’s very much a departure for me,” Traub says. “But I suppose you could say that like my other work it’s about America and the connection between people and places.”

The new book comes at a time when Grant’s reputation, as a military leader and as a president, is being reappraised by historians. Grant was widely esteemed when his political career came to an end — he was greeted by huge crowds during a world tour taken after his second term as president ended in 1877, and his memoirs, finished shortly before he died of throat cancer in 1885, were not only immensely popular but also regarded as literary masterpieces.

Over the years, however, Grant’s stature was diminished: The story most Americans came to be told was that of a drunkard who as general wasted the lives of his own men to bludgeon the South into submission. His presidency became associated with rampant corruption.

Both judgments are unfair, notes biographer Ronald White, author of the recently released book American Ulysses: The Life of Ulysses S. Grant.

White portrays Grant as an innovative general whose tactics in the crucial battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi, continue to be studied, and as a passionate defender of civil rights after the war. Another reevaluation of Grant is due soon from Ronald Chernow, whose 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton.

Grant’s prestige fell victim to the Lost Cause, a literary and intellectual movement propagated initially by former Confederate generals who cast their rebellion as a defense of state’s rights, not slavery, and as a noble struggle to preserve the culture and way of life of the Antebellum South. In this version of history, it wasn’t Grant’s generalship that did in the brilliant Lee, but the North’s overwhelming industrial might.

“We know now that is not true, but scholarship often lags behind popular opinion,” said White in a recent interview.

The Lost Cause movement became part of the reconciliation process between the states, enabling white southerners to venerate the soldiers and institutions of the Confederacy while downplaying the history of slavery; its common assumptions came to be seen throughout American culture, from D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan heroically, to Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel Gone With the Wind. Symbols of the Confederacy still form parts of a number of state flags across the South.

And in that regard, says Traub, the story of Ulysses S. Grant has contemporary resonance.

“What I came to realize is that Grant was maligned in the same way that a number of ideas and political issues have been,” he says. The stories America told itself about Grant and the Lost Cause have, he says, “persisted in dividing in this country.”

A Photographic Memorial

Traub, who is originally from Louisville, Kentucky, grew up learning that Robert E. Lee was, as he puts is, “this great Arthurian man.” Grant, he notes in his book, was dismissed as a “butcher and a frump.”

“Later I learned that Lee was a traitor and slaveholder,” he says.

His reeducation began 25 years ago, when he read Grant: A Biography  by William McFeely. “I don’t know why I picked it up, but I learned that Grant was a misunderstood figure,” he says. It was some time later, while traveling around the country working on a project called “Still Life In America,” that Traub began considering a project about Grant.

“I kept coming across Civil War battlefields and became enamored with them, in the sense that they are our most hallowed ground, and I realized I knew so little about the ultimate course of the war,” he says. “I began reading more and more, and I decided that I wanted to pay tribute to Grant in a photographic memorial.”

Traub began photographing those hallowed battlefields in 2010. “I traveled pretty much everywhere that Grant left a mark,” he says. He shot in black and white with a Canon DSLR because, he says, “black and white seemed more fitting.”

“I hadn’t shot black and white in almost 30 years,” Traub says, “but I didn’t want color and other vernacular things to interfere with what I was trying to do.”

The book traces Grant’s life from his childhood in Ohio through his western campaigns in the Civil War — Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga — and his Overland Campaign against Lee in the east. In a preface, Fred Ritchin, dean of the International Center of Photography School, asserts that Traub’s photographs are “mostly about absence.”

“Ulysses S. Grant is long dead, his legacy ephemeral, and these images take on the forensics of a phantom, and of the many others who shared with him the gory fields of battle,” Ritchen writes.

To fill the void, Traub hired an actor, Edoardo Ballerini, to read passages from Grant’s memoirs. Many of the photographs in the ebook feature a button; click on it and you hear Grant’s recollections of battles and his thoughts about the epic struggle in which he was engaged.

Political Values

Traub studied English literature at the University of Illinois and joined the Peace Corp in 1967. Later, back in Kentucky, he met the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who became an influence. He later pursued photography at the Institute of Design in Chicago.

His teaching career began in 1971 at Columbia College in Chicago and never stopped: The MFA program he designed at SVA is known for its early and innovative embrace of digital technology. He is also known for co-founding here is new york: a democracy of photographs, a phenomenally popular crowdscourced memorial to 9/11. The work brought him the 2002 Cornell Capa Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography.

Traub still has the honeyed accent of his home state. Ulysses Grant, who came from a humble beginning to lead a great army and then a nation in just a few short years, was, he says, "a very plain and principled man who fought for the right things.” 

While the myth of the Lost Cause began to be punctured with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Grant was somehow left out of the new story. His more recent reappraisal, says Traub, couldn’t come at a better time, as the United States moves into an uncertain future with deepened racial and cultural divides.

“Underneath all of this are political values that we are still struggling with,” he says.

In his book, Traub writes that Grant was “an imperfect hero,” a man without flash or fortune “who knew the causes of the war, knew that slavery and Secession were abominable, knew that winning came only with hard war, the unflinching support of the public and a superior strength of arms.”  His project on Grant has provided Traub with a platform for considering the legacies of the past — the ghosts that haunt his photographs of battlefields.


No comments yet.