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Remembering photographer Jerome Liebling

August 1, 2011 |  6:16 am

Jerome_liebling_014Jerome Liebling, the renowned documentary photographer and filmmaker, died late last week in Northampton, Mass. He was 87.

During his long career, Liebling specialized in capturing street life around the country. His photographs documented the lives of ordinary, usually working-class people caught in the middle of their daily routines. His career coincided with those of fellow photographers Walker Evans and Gordon Parks.

Liebling's photographs are in the collections of major museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His numerous honors include membership in New York's Photo League as well as two Guggenheim fellowships and a National Endowment for the Arts Photographic Survey Grant.

But Liebling's most lasting legacy might be as a teacher. Liebling taught at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis as well as at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. His most famous pupil is Ken Burns, the maker of such documentaries as PBS' "The Civil War" and "Baseball."

Jerry Liebling
In the Boston Globe on Friday, Burns described his former teacher as "a fierce warrior insisting on a kind of justice, a kind of truth, and an utterly American vitality. He saw in every individual his or her own worth."

 Liebling was born in New York in 1924 and grew up in Brooklyn. He served in the Army during World War II and later attended Brooklyn College and the New School. In 1949, he began his professorship at the University of Minnesota, creating the school's first photography and film program.

He would later hold a professorship at Hampshire College from 1969 until his death.

As a documentarian, Liebling worked frequently with Allen Downs, with whom he produced a number of films, including "Pow Wow," "The Tree Is Dead" and "The Old Men."

Another pupil was New York Times staff photographer James Estrin. "Jerry refused to teach technique. He insisted that it was unimportant," wrote Estrin in a tribute on the New York Times website.

"He insisted that it was all about what you had to say, not how you said it... Jerry was always most interested in the workingman and -woman."


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-- David Ng

Top photo by Jerome Liebling.

Lower photo: Jerome Liebling. Credit: Hampshire College