Jerome Liebling (1924-2011) grew up Brooklyn, New York, a first-generation son of Jewish immigrants from Europe. His father supported the family as a waiter. During World War II, Liebling served in the 82nd Airborne – surviving eight major offensives in the notoriously deadly glider infantry. Liebling enlisted to fight for a cause he believed in but returned from military service with a staunch anti-war sentiment that endured his entire lifetime. Back home in 1946, he enrolled at Brooklyn College under the G.I. Bill, studying design with the painter Ad Reinhardt and photography with Walter Rosenblum.
In 1947, Liebling joined the Photo League, a socially minded photographers’ cooperative, where, along with Paul Strand, W. Eugene Smith, Lisette Model and Aaron Siskind, he took to the streets of NYC to focus his lens on hidden corners of urban life. But perhaps the most edifying tenets of his creative vision were born on the depression-era streets of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Growing up a child of the Depression formed an impulse throughout his career, Liebling said, to “figure out where the pain was, to show things that people wouldn’t see unless I was showing them.”
In 1949, Liebling accepted a professorship at the University of Minnesota, where he established the school’s first photography and film program. There he began to make documentary films with a longtime collaborator, Allen Downs. Liebling moved to Amherst, Massachusetts in 1969 to head up the newly established film, photography and video program at Hampshire College, where he taught for twenty years.
During his forty-year teaching career, Liebling’s educational philosophy had a powerful impact on generations of photographers and filmmakers. Former student, Ken Burns remembers Liebling 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’s teaching legacy was the subject of a 2006 New York Times story by Randy Kennedy: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/19/arts/design/19lieb.html?_r=1&
Yale historian Alan Trachtenberg wrote that Liebling was not exactly a social or documentary photographer but rather a “civic photographer” whose work brought about a deep awareness of the personal in the political. “My sympathies have always been with the everyday people,” Liebling said, “they are the center of my photography.” He has been duly recognized for his poignant and unflinching portraits of American citizenry busied in the mundane and the brutal. Whether he was engaging with blood-soaked workers in a Minnesota slaughterhouse or with mental patients in a state hospital, cadavers or politicians, Liebling artfully traversed a gorge of emotions at once visceral and unnerving, poetic and revealing; and he did so with a deft mastery of light and space, and a profound appreciation of his subjects. He was rarely caught without his twin-lens Rolleiflex camera, and produced a distinguished six-decade body of work, now held in the permanent collections of world-renowned museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and The J. Paul Getty Museum, among many others.