Jerome Liebling’s photographs tell stories of the working class, the poor, the marginalized
PHOTO BY JEROME LIEBLING
"Behind Tenement," Holyoke, 1982 Purchase photo reprints »
PHOTO BY JEROME LIEBLING
"Girl at Railing," Holyoke, 1982 Purchase photo reprints »
PHOTO BY JEROME LIEBLING
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PHOTO BY DON GETSUG
Jerome Liebling Purchase photo reprints »
PHOTO BY JEROME LIEBLING
"Kids Behind Tenement," Holyoke, 1982 Purchase photo reprints »
PHOTO BY JEROME LIEBLING
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PHOTO BY JEROME LIEBLING
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When Jerome Liebling, the internationally acclaimed documentary and realist photographer, died at age 87 in July 2011, family and friends began the process of going through an enormous archive of photos at his Amherst home.
They came across a series of images from downtown Holyoke shot in the early 1980s, depicting children and families in South Holyoke and the Flats.
Nina Mankin of Amherst, a Liebling family friend who had been working for a few years as a fundraiser for a new $14.5 million library in Holyoke, struck upon the idea of exhibiting the mostly never-before-seen photos to help raise money for the new library and learning center, which is currently under construction.
The Liebling family agreed and from April 4 through 7, the public will be able to see 36 of these compelling images at an exhibition at the 4th floor gallery at Open Square, the former mill complex converted to business and art space on Open Square Way. The show is part of a month-long series of arts events, “Holyoke: Points of View,” intended to raise money for the library, which is slated to open by this summer.
In an effort to make the photos even more accessible to the community of Holyoke and beyond, the show will then be divided and moved to two other locations: the Holyoke Public Library’s temporary location at Holyoke City Hall and Wistariahurst Museum from April 8 through 28. The exhibit is free, with the exception of an opening night event.
“A Walk Through Holyoke — 1982” opens with a gala fundraiser at Open Square on April 4 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., featuring a presentation by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who will talk about Liebling’s work and influence on his own career, beginning when he was a student at Hampshire College.
Liebling founded the film and photo department at Hampshire, where, as a professor, he guided the early work of many budding photographers and filmmakers, most notably Burns, who would go on to produce work of critical acclaim. Burns, whose award-winning films about American life and history include “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The War” and others, will speak at 6:30 p.m.
Burns has said Liebling was the primary force in shaping his documentary vision.
“I do not recognize the person who was introduced to Jerry Liebling as the person that I am today,” Ken Burns said in a phone interview earlier this week. “He was seminal in helping me understand the direction I wanted to go in. He infused my work with a humanity that is as deep and as wide as anything I have ever come across.”
Burns recalled that Liebling insisted that his photography students “not just take pictures,” but “communicate a desire to connect with the guts of humanity.” Burns said Liebling’s widow, Rebecca Nordstrom, a dance professor at Hampshire College, showed him the photos from the Holyoke series that will be exhibited.
“I was stunned,” Burns said. “He was interested in the manifestation of human beings on this planet, who they were and what they were all about. He saw Holyoke as an opportunity to just ‘see’ people . . . he was able to reach out to the so-called ordinary person and find in that person heroic dimensions.”
Burns said he recalls taking photos in Holyoke with Liebling and, later on, remembers crossing the railroad tracks in the city, taking pictures around the canals, and traversing some of the same depressed neighborhoods depicted in the exhibition.
Burns said Liebling’s interest in Holyoke was not a “drive-by” affair, but a long-term appreciation of the city and its people. Burns said in an era when “only the names in bold face” — the rich and the famous — seemed to count, Liebling always retained the view that “everyone matters,” a belief that Burns said continues to inform his own documentaries.
“It turns out that everyone does matter and Jerry knew this all along,” Burns said. “He had a fierce sense of injustice and a fierce sense of justice. He was always for the person who wasn’t getting a fair shake and he perceived, correctly, that things are always getting skewed against those people who are less fortunate.”
In response, Liebling “used his camera and his eye” to tell the stories of the working class, the poor, and the marginalized to the wider world, Burns said. He also understood how “money corrupts,” he said, and that the poor, despite their difficult lives, often have “an even greater and richer” inner life that was, and is, very much worth documenting.
Some 30 years later, Burns says, the same sorts of photos, albeit with different hairstyles and clothing, could be taken in certain neighborhoods of Holyoke.
“When we seek out humanity, what falls away are the transient things such as fashion, but what remains is the essence of what it means to be human,” Burns said. “What Jerry did through his photography was to cut through to that essential.”
Elevating the everyday
While Liebling was committed to photographing urban life throughout his career, Burns noted that his photographer’s eye was interested in absolutely everything.
“The range of his interests was so broad,” Burns said. “He photographed in Mexico, Spain and New York City, and also in Minnesota, where he lived for 20 years. He took extremely gorgeous photos of zucchini lying in fields in Hadley” and a “path of apple trees in blossom across the Hampshire College campus. He had an amazing sense of photography of everyday places.”
Mankin, the library fundraiser and Liebling family friend, said the elevation of the everyday is very much evident in the Holyoke photos that will be exhibited via “A Walk Through Holyoke—1982.”
“We spent some glorious days going through boxes of Jerry’s photos,” Mankin said. She and Rachel Liebling, one of Jerome’s daughters, determined that the photographer captured the images on walks through the city with his friend, Bill Ravanesi, who was, at the time, a well-known local photographer documenting images of Holyoke through a Ford Foundation grant. For simplicity’s sake, organizers of the photo exhibition chose the title, “A Walk Through Holyoke—1982,” because one of the photos was clearly dated from that year.
While the photos show scenes of some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, they are not all bleak. In one image, three young Hispanic women sit in front of an apartment building on a summer day, smiling, while one holds a baby. In another, young girls in dresses shield their faces from the sun, while the shadow of the photographer capturing their pensive image looms in the foreground.
While the photos show scenes of urban poverty, they also show families and individuals going about their everyday lives, amid a backdrop of decaying tenement buildings.
“You look at these pictures of the people of Holyoke and see the humanity, the humor and the drama that Jerry was able to capture,” Mankin said. “The photographs are pleasant to look at. It’s a really beautiful collection.”
Mankin said Liebling also loved literature and viewed his work as a sort of social justice endeavor; as such he would be very pleased that his photos of Holyoke are helping to support a new 21st-century library and learning center that will benefit the city and the surrounding region.
“This is an amazing thing for Holyoke,” Mankin said. “Can you imagine how transformative this will be for the community?”
Burns agreed that Liebling would be pleased that his work would be shown in the city where it was photographed, to benefit something as important as a library, in a city that still is one of the poorest in Massachusetts.
“This is what Jerry did,” Burns said. “He wasn’t into self-promotion. He was into service. The idea that these photographs would serve something else would, and will, make him very happy.”
Born in New York City in 1924, Jerome Liebling was raised in Brooklyn and interrupted his studies at Brooklyn College to enlist in the U. S. Army during World War II.
After the war, with the aid of the G.I. Bill, Liebling returned to Brooklyn College where he studied photography with Walter Rosenblum, and filmmaking at the New School for Social Research. He also joined the prestigious New York Photo League, where he met and worked with some of the most respected documentary photographers of the era, including Paul Strand and Photo League founder, Sid Grossman.
In a New York Times obituary, Liebling was described as part of a “wave of pioneering photographers — including Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt and Gordon Parks — who took to the streets of New York in the 1930s and ’40s to make art by turning their cameras onto corners of urban life that had mostly been ignored by the photographers before them.”
In a New York Times interview, Liebling said that growing up as a child of the Depression formed a desire throughout his career to “figure out where the pain was, to show things that people wouldn’t see unless I was showing them.” Over the years, his work took him to state fairs, coalfields, political conventions, homes for the blind, poverty-stricken Indian reservations and a slaughterhouse in South St. Paul, Minn. Perhaps his most famous image is “Butterfly Boy,” a black-and-white photo taken in 1949 of a young African-American boy swirling his coat out around him in a wing-like fashion. The boy’s face is serious and his gaze, intent.
At the University of Minnesota, Liebling launched a film and photography program, and later on, in 1969, he established the film and photography program (later, to include video) at the fledgling Hampshire College in Amherst, where he taught for the next 20 years.
Among the many museums which include Liebling’s work in their permanent collections are New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Throughout his long career Liebling’s images reflected environments of social and political change and community perseverance in his native New York City and adopted homes in the Midwest and New England, including his series of photos taken in Holyoke.
Ravanesi, a photographer 20 years younger than Liebling, recalled when the Hampshire professor contacted him about taking photos in downtown Holyoke. The two had worked together on a photography project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts a few years earlier.
“He was one of the great American photographers,” Ravanesi said. “I grew up watching his work evolve. He called and said, ‘can I come to Holyoke?’ ” Ravanesi said while Liebling still traveled to New York City to shoot, he was very busy at Hampshire College, and was interested in continuing to photograph scenes of urban life. Holyoke, located a half-hour’s drive from the college, seemed a natural place to do that.
Ravanesi recalls the pair working with the late Carlos Vega, a well-known community activist in the city, to negotiate neighborhoods that were, at the time, rife with drug dealing and gang violence. The photographers spent time just touring neighborhoods and meeting people before they began taking pictures.
“Jerry was always interested in unlocking or uncovering with his camera the life of youth, families and home within an urban setting,” Ravanesi said. “Holyoke was the perfect subject for him, since he was living in the Valley. It is a city that is rich in color and culture and has a historic backdrop.”
Ravanesi said the Holyoke work is similar to black-and-white photos that Liebling took in the South Bronx in the e_SSRq70s, except he moved into color by the e_SSRq80s.
“There is a real grittiness to it,” Ravanesi said. “He was able to capture the humanity of the moment, whether it was in Holyoke or the Bronx. ... Jerry saw himself as a civic photographer and I think it was important for him, living in bucolic Amherst, to reach out and stay connected to the city.”