Harbutt's work is deeply rooted in the modern photojournalist tradition. For the first twenty years of his career he contributed to major magazines in the United States, Europe and Japan, his work often intrinsically political, exhibiting social and economic contingencies. In 1959, on the strength of three photographs published in Modern Photography he was invited by members of the Castro underground to document the Cuban Revolution.
Harbutt joined Magnum Photos and was elected president of the organization twice, first in 1979. He left the group in 1981, citing its increasingly commercial ambitions and the desire to pursue more personal work. He has subsequently taught photography workshops, exhibited in solo and group shows around the world, and joined the faculty of Parsons School of Design at New School University as a full-time professor, in addition to serving as guest artist at MIT, The Art Institute of Chicago, and Rhode Island School of Design. Harbutt was a founding member of Archive Pictures Inc., an international documentary photographers' cooperative, and is a member of the American Society of Magazine Photographers.
His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of American History, the Corcoran Gallery, the U.S. Library of Congress, George Eastman House, the Art Institute of Chicago, the International Center of Photography, the Center for Creative Photography, and at the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Beaubourg, and the Maison Europeene de la Photographie in Paris.
In 1997, his negatives, master prints & archives were acquired for the collection of the Center for Creative Photography, in Tucson, Arizona.
More recently he mounted a large exhibition of his work at the Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City in December 2000 and received the medal of the City of Perpignan at a retrospective of his work there in 2004.
- America In Crisis (1969) (contributor and co-editor)
- Travelog (1974)
- Progreso (1986)
- Regan, Margaret. "Charles Harbutt overcame many obstacles in his career, most notably cynicism.", Tucson Weekly, December 29, 1997. Accessed October 12, 2009. "Harbutt grew up in the little town of Teaneck, N.J. He learned so much about photography from the 'amateurs' in the local camera club that at Marquette in the 1950s he was banned from photog classes on the grounds that he already knew what he was doing".
- Actuality Inc, Charles Harbutt's official website, as preserved by the Wayback Machine on October 7, 2013