Portrait of Liebling

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Tool of the Trade:
twin-lens reflex camera

These days it seems that physical “truth” can easily be rearranged, rethought, or re-created outright. Any image can be made pristine, all the warts can be removed.

But returning to the source of a thing–the real source–means the photographer has to watch, dig, listen for voices, sniff the smells, and have many doubts.

My life in photography has been lived as a skeptic.

–Jerome Liebling, The People, Yes, 1995


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Liebling and The Photo League

“Liebling’s work shows us not the world of objective facts, but his own experience of the world. In the angle of vision, the man reveals himself.”

– Alan Trachtenberg (for Liebling portfolio), 1976

The people on these steps have come to Union Square in New York City to watch a parade. The picture records them seated together beneath a public monument but seemingly lost in their own private daydreams as they wait for the parade to start. Alan Trachtenberg, in his introduction to Jerome Liebling Photographs, describes it:

Clutching knees or a newspaper, holding chins or each other’s hands, the individuals of the seated group make up a frieze, a human tapestry without an obvious legend; they gaze outward or muse inward on some unvoiced private story. And they sit beneath another frieze, the bas-relief of the monument, an allegory of a parade drawn into a shining future by a holy child, a goddess of peace, and a winged horse of victory. The figures are mythical and the message patriotic. The inscription is pure oratory: “How little do my countrymen know . . .”

(Alan Trachtenberg,Jerome Liebling Photographs, 1982)

Could the photograph be asking, “How little do my countrymen know of each other?” Trachtenberg points out that the picture plays the monument’s patriotism against the street, where real-life patriots sprawl on the steps.

Pictures like this one place Jerome Liebling in the tradition of social documentary photography. The picture goes beyond showing what the camera sees. A social document comments on society, and in doing so, reveals the photographer’s point of view.


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Photographers and children

For me photography had an immediacy . . . I was trying to resolve certain issues. What was fair or unfair about how people lived, and how they had to live? I thought the most penetrating and most immediate way to get to some of those questions was through photography.

–Jerome Liebling, Minnesota Daily, 1997

The little boy in this photo wears an expression and a hat that are both about 30 years too old for him. He looks directly into the camera, apparently unalarmed even though the camera and the photographer are obviously looming over him. The angle of the photograph, taken from an adult height, emphasizes the boy’s small size and his vulnerability. “By shooting this youngster without much environmental detail, I wanted to invite the viewer’s sympathetic interest in him, from his curious gaze to his gracefully crossed hands to the poverty betrayed by his cheaply made, broken shoes,” wrote photographer Jerome Liebling. (Documentary Photography, 1972)

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A Letter from Alice.

Jerome Liebling took this photograph of Minneapolis coalworker Fredrick Longen shortly after Liebling moved from New York to Minneapolis to teach photography at the University of Minnesota. “Far from inhibiting my work,” Liebling recalled, “Minnesota allowed me to extend the street out to the field and landscape. As they did in New York, my sympathies remained more with the folk who had to struggle to stay even, whose voices were often excluded from the general discourse.” (The Minnesota Photographs, 1997)

Fredrick Longen certainly fits the description of “the folk who had to struggle to stay even.” A modest coalworker, Liebling’s photograph of him elevates him to hero status, his shovel a proud weapon in the fight for dignity.

“The coal worker is perhaps the most telling image; it serves as a paradigm of Liebling’s work and identifies the stunning simplicity at the heart of his vision: the stark but lyrical horizon line of coal marking out a landscape of utter blackness out of which a black figure asserts itself with a pride of being. A common shovel opens our eyes, becomes an unspeakable thing of beauty. The unspeakable power of the mundane to move, to impress, to coerce us into recognitions: this is an authentic power of photography itself.”

–Alan Trachtenberg (for Liebling portfolio), 1976

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It was the strength of memory and history–the traditional culture–that had sustained the Ojibway in their deep, ongoing struggle for survival, a struggle that was etched in the faces of young and old during the trying period of the 1950s.

–Jerome Liebling, The Minnesota Photographs, 1997

Every photograph, besides being a document of what the camera sees, also testifies to the relationship between the photographer and the subject of the photo. Liebling’s photograph of an Ojibway woman on the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota reveals a trusting relationship. This woman appears lost in thought and seems to have forgotten all about the man with the camera who shares her space. She must have been comfortable enough to be unconcerned that Jerome Liebling was contemplating her at close range through the lens of a camera.

The photograph is also a study in textures. All the tones that make up the woman’s face, her bandanna, the background, her hair and shirt are the same rich, dark grays. The variations are in the texture–the pattern on the bandanna, the wispy hair, fine lines in the skin and the soft background. The only thing that stands out are the hearts that make up her earring, perhaps a symbol of the strong heart Liebling found when he photographed this woman.

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Liebling was always on the lookout for pictures that revealed a politician's true character…

My photographs tried to find the politicians at their most wary, most vulnerable, and perhaps most truthful moments. I wanted the photographs to reveal the person through stance and stare, when he or she was most reflective or off guard, in order to measure the person and event unfolding.

–Jerome Liebling, The Minnesota Photographs, 1997

Besides teaching photography at the University of Minnesota, Jerome Liebling was often hired by politicians to make photos of their campaigns. Liebling was always on the lookout for pictures that revealed a politician’s true character, even though that wasn’t exactly his assignment.

This photograph, taken at a rally in Minneapolis, is a good example of what the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called the “decisive moment.” The decisive moment is a concept that photographers everywhere understand. Cartier-Bresson explains, “Sometimes you have the feeling that here are all the makings of a picture–except for just one thing that seems to be missing. You wait and wait, and then finally you press the button–and you depart with the feeling (though you don’t know why) that you’ve really got something. Later, to substantiate this, you can take a print of this picture . . . and you’ll discover that, if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.” (The Decisive Moment, 1952)

Liebling certainly caught the two politicians in the photo at a decisive moment. Their faces at this moment tell a story about their temperaments–one worried, uncomfortable and tense; the other relaxed, in control, with a tiny triumphant smile on his face. It is this sort of attitude that politicians don’t like to reveal, but it was just what Liebling was looking for.

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"Any evidence of rural idyll was long gone from Minnesota …"

Without a floor to stand on or a horizon line to anchor them, these pigs could be blimps floating in the sky against a cloud of fluffy particles. When this photograph was taken in 1964, photographer Jerome Liebling wrote, "Any evidence of rural idyll was long gone from Minnesota but it seemed that everyone kept searching for the past memory. Like some fairy tale, the idyll would reappear every August for ten days and display for us a marvelous cornucopia of fruits, legumes, baked and canned goods, pumpkins, homey crafts. And the most spectacular pigs, cows, sheep and horses. What we would not find in the fields awaited us each year at the Minnesota State Fair." (The Minnesota Photographs, 1997) By closing in with his camera and excluding any details that may have been surrounding these sleeping, peaceful pigs, Liebling kept them timeless. This would still be a familiar sight at the Minnesota State Fair.


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"For the men on the killing floor there was always great danger …"


In order for Liebling to document work in a slaughterhouse he had to actually go there, a trip few of us would relish taking. In photographs like these there is the power of an additional message: “I can show you this because I was there.” The document becomes one of both the slaughterhouse and Liebling’s personal experience.

“For Liebling, as for every major figure in photography, pictorial power arises from the desire to be with the world, not merely to record but to register the fact of one’s own presence, to project one’s self in the act of capturing a scene.” (Alan Trachtenberg, Jerome Liebling Photographs, 1982)

There is an odd beauty in this photograph of a slaughterhouse wall. The abstract shapes of all the rectangles are like a collage and the shimmering texture of the walls are painterly, like brushstrokes in a painting. At first it isn’t even clear what the cow is doing here, dangling at that strange angle. Or is it that the picture is not right-side up?

When Jerome Liebling went to slaughterhouses in South St. Paul, Minnesota, to ask permission to photograph the work there, he wasn’t interested in exposing the horror of a slaughterhouse or promoting a vegetarian lifestyle. In fact he wanted to document what very few meat consumers would ever see–the reality of preparing meat for human consumption. In documenting the process, he created a photograph that expresses the conflicting emotions that many feel over the way meat is processed.

“My photographs deal primarily with what I considered the most heroic moments in the process: the slaughter, the symbolic relationship between workers and animals,” wrote Liebling. “For the men on the killing floor, there was always great danger balanced by their skill and stoicism… men’s hands trained to function like machines performed the one act in the process that could not be mechanized.” (The Minnesota Photographs, 1997)


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"This extraordinary inner strength can be seen both in their faces and in their gestures."

A resident of a St. Paul, Minnesota, home for the blind leans against a fence and lifts her face toward the sky. Photographer Jerome Liebling moves in close and fills the frame with this figure, giving her the kind of importance that takes up a lot of space. Even though there is enough available light to have a greater depth of field in this photo, Liebling has chosen to selectively focus on the woman. The effect emphasizes her importance even more.

There is just enough light coming from behind her to light the top of her head in a subtle halo. But perhaps most dramatic is the woman’s expression, recorded at the decisive moment, wrinkling her nose in curiosity, or perhaps relief at finding a place to rest in the sun. “I photographed in clinics and institutions first in the 1960s and then again in 1975, and was compelled by the remarkable strength of the people I saw,” wrote Liebling. “This extraordinary inner strength can be seen both in their faces and in their gestures. I believe that the extent to which a society cares for all its people is a gauge of humanity–or lack of it.”


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For more about Jerome Liebling:

Jerome Liebling, Jerome Liebling Photographs,
New York: Aperture, 1982

Covers the major periods of Liebling’s work until 1982, with critical essays by an American Studies scholar and a poet/critic.

Jerome Liebling, The People, Yes,
New York: Aperture, 1995

A survey of Liebling’s work, with notes written by the photographer.

Jerome Liebling, The Minnesota Photographs,
Minneapolis: The Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1997

Photographs made from 1949 to 1969, when Liebling taught photography and film in the Studio Art Department at the University of Minnesota. Notes by the photographer.

Link to KTCA Public Television


KTCA Real Player clip of Jerome Liebling’s appearance on Minnesota Public Television’s Almanac in 1997.

Link to Minnesota Public Radio


Audio format and transcript of Jerome Liebling interview by Greta Cunningham of Minnesota Public Radio. 11 minutes long.

Link to Doubletake magazine

Essay by Jerome Liebling excerpted from The Minnesota Photographs (The Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1997)


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