Still(s) concerned with the workers: an interview with Jerome Liebling
Guest blog writer and editor Amelia Hennighausen leapt at the chance to interview the American living legend of photography, Jerome Liebling (b.1924)* via his daughter, filmmaker Rachel Liebling.
As part of the Photo League, as a professor of photography for decades, and as an accomplished photographer, Liebling has fostered the documentary and influenced multitudes. Here is what he has to say, at 87 years of age…
Why did you become a photographer, what drew you to it?
Jerome Liebling: When I was discharged from the army in 1945 I spent a few months contemplating what my next move would be. I thought I might return to Europe or Mexico, but issues at home kept me there.
Home is in Brooklyn, and I eventually went to Brooklyn College in 1946, which had a very unique art department that had recently changed its structure and made it into, as closely as they could, a Bauhaus approach to the arts. I didn’t know any of this and entered the school.
I didn’t even own a camera, I had to borrow one from school. But I was so precocious and so good so quickly, and every aspect of photography just seemed to fuse. A lot of it had to do with [my teacher Walter] Rosenblum and his pictures of the streets and his ideas about what photography represented.
And what were those ideas, what did he think it represented?
Well, of course, it was a documentary approach, which eliminated all specialty in commercial work. There was a real division between our photography, which had a purity of pursuit of the world as it really looked, so that the pictures we made were true observations of what was out there. That was the big difference, that we sought a different truth from the commercial work that was being done.
What were some of the things that you went out looking for when you first started?
Well, mostly just the street, and what it gave back. There were a few wonderful documentary photographers, especially Helen Levitt, who was present and whose work I saw. All of the good people were trying to bring back pieces of the world as honestly as possible.
Do you consider yourself an artist, filmmaker, photographer, documentarian, or photojournalist?
Well at one time I would say I encompassed all of those categories, and I was trying to do it all. I mean there’s no difference in my photography, but I was a filmmaker and other things. In recent years I’ve just withdrawn.
I found that in order to make a film everybody had pushed it to a point where it cost a hundred thousand dollars to make a little film and I became quite disappointed, because I certainly didn’t have the money nor the inclination, and now a hundred thousand dollars is a joke.
It meant I was out of film, and about 30 years ago I returned to photography and found that there I had control, I could do what I wanted, I could go where I wanted, and I could afford it since I received little grants on occasion, but even if that didn’t occur, I could spend five hundred dollars.
I used a Rolleiflex camera for over 40 years and it’s so ingrained and part of me that now I can’t get film and can’t use the camera. I’ve no ability to photograph any more.
But you did take those ones on the digital camera…
Yeah, yeah, but I don’t consider them of importance.
Why are they less important?
The relationship of the camera to me was almost like an extension of my body and I haven’t gotten over the use of the Rollei so I haven’t found any other camera, especially the digital, that come any where near the personal success I had with my Rolleiflex. I used one model, the T, which had a 645 [similar to 4x5"] possibility. My seeing was increased and very, very quickly, as quickly as my eyes worked, I could work with the Rollei, and that’s how it extended my ability to produce pictures.
There was a point where photography was not in the category of what would be called Fine Art, right?
Well, that sort of diverts me because I don’t really care. BUT, there were many categories for the arts until 1839, when photography was invented. It immediately disturbed everybody, and we said, “What the hell is this thing, where does it belong?”
Today [with digital ubiquity] you have the same problem, or more because in one minute you have a billion pictures taken. It wanders, photography with strong interpretations of what it meant, of what it did, of where it belongs.
They said, “you know those folks who originally thought there was something here that goes beyond the mere painting (a recording of the facts) were right.” So let’s declare it an art and get it over with.
You’ve said about the subjects in your photos, “That thing which is closest to us, which is the everyday, the ordinary…I think is very, very important.” -1997
But you’ve also shot politicians (Wallace, Truman, and Kennedy). Did that subject matter change your approach in how you photographed them?
I was a teacher but that didn’t mean I had a grand salary. I tried to be a photojournalist. And I had many opportunities to go out on jobs. I would always look for opportunities to do MY picture MY way. I also found it interesting for money to do the work of the photojournalist and those are the so-called “other pictures”, the politicians. As often as I could, I would squeeze in my own approach, always covering what I did to make sure the editor would be satisfied. So, there are many, many photographs I’ve never shown that were just straight photojournalism and pictures for money. And they were sometimes the most trivial pictures.
I was interested in politics for a long time and tried to get close to politicians and certainly the big presidential conventions seemed most important, but it didn’t mean I got any pictures (laughs). I went.
What were you looking for in your work that was different [than what an editor would want]?
I used to take pictures of conventions and a speaker, and there was nothing duller than the person up on the stage and an audience. Then if you sort of went through the audience and photographed some things, the editor wasn’t going to use it, he was just looking for the one key shot.
You try and develop the physical and take it away. [When I photographed the four businessmen] they were just getting the money, all of the issues that we now encounter on Wall Street, say “who are those people on Wall Street”, and I wanted to take a photograph so that when you looked at it, you’d say “That guy’s a shit,” you know, and “We’ve gotta watch out for him.” If I’ve succeeded in that one, then I’m quite happy.
But there are attitudes in the faces, in the thousands of persons and in the closeness of the photographer to touching these people and getting some interpretation, if you believe that an interpretation can be made. If you don’t think so and just look at it and say “Oh, that’s a nice picture,” well, then it’s lost.
You taught for 40 years. What did you gain from all those years?
Oh, well of course I gained a salary. (laughs.) That was the first thing.
If you get a bit of an education and you’re lucky enough as I was, there’s few jobs as interesting as teaching because you don’t have the pressure. You have really considerate people who are honest and friendly and you meet the joy of the students, there’s no doubt about that, most of the time, and you also share with the students a love of this THING called photography.
Each time you get forty people who share with you and wanna know from you, “What’s going on?,” and “How can I get better?,” you can tell them a little bit of what you think of the world, and sometimes they believe you and sometimes they don’t.
You joined the Photo League in 1947, the year it was formally declared subversive and placed on the blacklist [for being "Communist"].
That was a major important time for civil liberties and politics. Are there any recollections about that time?
Well, very important, unfortunately I joined the league when the league was a mature organization. It had an important pre-war existence when I was just a little baby. By the time I got there in 1947 it already had a second existence in the post-war and I barely got started when I left.
The United States government in whatever secret manner decided to destroy everything Franklin Roosevelt provided, and break up any possibility of freeing that guy who was pumping gas. That’s what the Photo League was attempting to do, and how the Photo League got on any list is one of the secrets of the day.
Nobody told you and you had no one to go to in the United States and say “what do you mean we’re subversive, who declares somebody subversive?” It was extremely threatening that you’d have to submit to a loyalty test, as I did at the many schools where I taught. They’d come up and say, “Are you a radical and will you sign this list?” Well, if you were in the Photo League, then you had to say, “Yes, I was a subversive.” So everybody quit the Photo League.
But it was an opportunity as it is today to present the world as clearly, as openly, as truthfully as you could.
I wanted to ask about your work with Paul Strand.
(laughs) Well I got to know Paul…he was a friend and, of course, extremely talented, one of the great photographers of the United States. With a particular idea about photography, remember he goes back to [Alfred] Stieglitz and he was one of the important friends of Stieglitz, very intimate in the early days.
There are parts of my work where I imitated [Paul] Strand, but I was the kid, when I was around the Photo League with Strand I was 22. Strand never had a contemporary camera.
He had a Graflex that he had taped up and figured out a different format and that’s what he used.
So he, too, had to make some money but on a better scale than me. And he had an assignment for a big magazine. This is early television, and suddenly the sprouting of TV aerials on the rooftops looked very unique. He had to photograph a rooftop with the aerials and he was going off to do the job. He called me and he says, “Jerry I want you to help me.” He wanted me to schlep the cameras. And that’s what happened.
So we went up, me carrying his stuff to the rooftop, and he set up and the sky was maybe just flat and he was such a painful… (laughs) that he had to get it right, and he said, “No, no, we gotta get a cloud, it hadda be over here.” “Well, where do you get a cloud,” I tell him.
So he said, “Jerry pick up all the stuff.” I picked up all the stuff, we went away and then we came back at another day and another date. I said, “Alright I’ll schlep the stuff for you,” and we came up and I don’t know if he was satisfied, but he took the picture.
What is the difference between documentary photography and journalism, or what is the relationship?
Actually the journalists, photojournalist, has the possibility of bringing back the kinds of photographs that I describe because they’re the only ones who enter all kinds of situations, many that they’re unfamiliar with from day to day, just keep changing. They’re sent out and told to bring back what is really happening. And the photographer of great talent was Eugene Smith who was a photojournalist and brought back his marvelous pictures and would fight with the editors. Most of the time the editors want a joyous, playful picture that doesn’t bring home the sense of what’s going on.
I think the photojournalist is truly way ahead if they’re able to exploit and not be intimidated by their editors.
How did you first go about making a living from being a photographer?
Mine was a special circumstance. I said at the outset in 1946 when I entered college there was no photography, no photography, no photography, taught at any school or college in the United States. This new program at Brooklyn College had this one course of photography. And Chicago Art Institute, where [LÃ¡szlÃ³] Moholy-Nagy, who was at the Bauhaus in Germany and eventually came to the United States to establish a program, taught photography. And then Minor White had a little program in California. That was it. Today every single university has a program in photography, and it has been accepted as a very legitimate part of the arts, and a very expressive medium. All of that was really started in 1946.
The degree fetish hadn’t even been established yet, nor what the program should be. In 1949, the University of Minnesota wanted to establish a new program, and we got together and I had a job [at age 25]. So the usual search that we talk about today was missing in my life and I was teaching all those years and never missed a paycheck.
Teaching was my key to money.
What was the first photograph someone bought from you? Or getting in a gallery or anywhere where your work was put up and it was said, “This is art.”
I said I was very talented, though I repeat it, it was true from the beginning. And certainly when I was in the Photo League, which had some very distinguished people.
Well, Walter was there, Sid Grossman…quite a number. Paul Strand.
I had an exhibit there and many people wanted to have an exhibit, so I had early recognition. The question of the sale of photographs just didn’t establish itself until about 1960, when a gallery opened in New York that could sell photographs and support itself.
Photojournalism was very, very important. Certainly Life and Look and many magazines used photography. They just said no more magazines, goodbye.
Why did that happen? And in a way it’s sort of like what is happening now with print being “dead”…
What happened of course is that nobody was reading them because everybody went to TV. I mean the strength of Life magazine, it was one of the most powerful magazines going and used a lot of photographs. But all of that died.
There’s really been no substitute in a career for photojournalism and the ability to make a living. The sale of photographs has done well by certain dealers rather than photographers. In New York now there are maybe hundreds of galleries but there’s not a photographer that I know, talented people, who can make a living off their sales. There might be one or two, certainly an Ansel Adams, but other young people today…
There’s all the commercial work, but that is something else…
Well, who are the commercial people and where are they commercializing? Who are they dealing with? Certainly there are Avedons…Annie Leibovitz, absolutely. Annie Leibovitz apparently has made millions of dollars. Her millions of dollars couldn’t spread out to all of the photographers to make them have a living. So there’s one Annie Leibovitz, yeah.
(Be sure to check out Amelia’s blog, here)
This interview took place on July 1, 2011 at Jerome Liebling’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts.
*Jerome Liebling passed away on July 27, 2011. Our sincere condolences to those who lost him.