Liebling?s Holyoke

Dig very deeply into the story of photographer Jerome Liebling, and you get a picture of an unusual and gifted teacher, the kind who effects fundamental changes in thinking. After Liebling’s death in 2011, his former student James Estrin wrote this at the New York Times’ Lens blog:

“Jerry Liebling’s photography classes—at least in the late ’70s, when I studied under him—consisted mostly of his lecturing about everything but photography. He would talk about Greek philosophy, German history, Jungian psychology, 16th-century Flemish painting and French cinema. In the same lecture! Only rarely would the names of Edward Weston or Lewis Hine come into the conversation. Then a half-hour would be devoted to his tough critiques of our photographs. While the lectures were thrilling, I was often frustrated. Jerry refused to teach technique. He insisted that it was unimportant. No matter how much I asked, he wouldn’t show me how to use a four-by-five camera. Learn it yourself, he told me.”

In a 2004 Boston Globe profile, Liebling described his teaching as “Seeing and encountering the world—that was it. We did it with photo; we did it with film. Take the camera, go look.”

Beyond such tales of his teaching prowess (he founded the film and photography program at Hampshire College), it’s clear that Liebling was a major force in documentary photography. He saw much with his camera, and focused on issues of social justice. All the same, Liebling’s photos don’t preach. They are subtle—he simply framed what he saw. Their effect is often stunning nonetheless.

There is a frankness and plainspoken power about his subjects, who are, as often as not, looking at the camera. In his older, black-and-white work, the effect is particularly strong. An image, for example, of a handball player in Miami offers a look at an older man with a paunch, tired and sweaty from playing the game. Yet there is something startling about how easily the man offers his half-clothed body to the camera. The beautifully exposed light seems to illuminate something ancient—a Greek wrestler of millennia ago, or a warrior.

One of his most often-seen images, “Butterfly Boy, New York 1949,” shows a young boy on the street, his wool coat lifted like wings. The boy’s expression is hard to read. He’s not smiling, not angry, either. Something is going on, but it isn’t clear just what. Liebling’s images invite the kind of long contemplation “Butterfly Boy” requires, and that arresting power is something he seems to have been strongly aware of.

In a recent interview with Valley photographer Tom Young (“Visual Grammar,” Feb. 28, 2013), Young offered this: “Liebling said there are some images we can read instantly. But with others, wouldn’t it be funny if museums posted signs saying, ‘This is a 20-minute photo,’ or ‘This is a five-minute photo’?”

If ever there was a 20-minute photo, Liebling’s “Morning in Monessen, Pa. 1983” fits the bill. In it, an old woman in white coat and red headscarf stands in early light, staring at what appears to be an abandoned storefront. The scene taps into something primal, something that feels especially American, in the manner of “Nighthawks at the Diner.” Somehow that quiet moment evokes a complex group of emotions—is this despair? Boredom? Just a quiet moment of contemplation?

It’s something of a gift for the Valley that such a renowned and widely displayed photographer turned his lens on Holyoke 30 years ago, revealing everyday life in the post-industrial city. Here, too, Liebling’s subjects seem to reveal an ease with the camera. Some images seem like particularly well-exposed snapshots, and others tap into the kind of emotional complexity he often captured. His scenes of children play against expectations often, like the frame in which a young girl sits in a window—the photo is dominated by the crumbling structure around her.

This convergence of artistic power and the local landscape offers fascinating viewing, and the exhibition of Liebling’s Holyoke images, called A Walk Through Holyoke—1982, is the centerpiece in a month-long effort to showcase Holyoke art and artists, dubbed Holyoke Points of View. The events benefit the Holyoke Public Library and its campaign for renovation and expansion, as does the auction of a print of “Young Girls, Holyoke, Mass., 1982,” pictured above (visit before the auction’s April 5 close). The Liebling exhibition begins at Open Square (April 4 -7), then continues at the Holyoke Public Library’s temporary location at Holyoke City Hall Auditorium and Wistariahurst Museum April 9 to 27.

A long list of events happen during the month at locations all over Holyoke’s arts district. They include The Puerto Rican Cultural Project (displaying posters from Puerto Rico), Holyoke Through Our Eyes (photography workshops taking inspiration from Liebling’s work), Ripple Effect (writing workshops hosted by Enchanted Circle Theater), Holyoke Then and Now (photos by Jeffrey Byrne and Bill Ravanesi, landscape paintings by Greg Stone), and lots more.•

A Walk Through Holyoke—1982: April 4-7: Open Square 4th floor gallery, Holyoke. Opening gala: April 4, 5:30-8:30 with speaker and former Liebling student Ken Burns.

April 9-27, Holyoke City Hall Auditorium and Wistariahurst Museum, Holyoke, (413) 322-5636.

For a full rundown of Holyoke Points of View events, visit

Author: James Heflin

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