By Michael Samuels 09F
Boston Globe review of Liebling exhibition
At the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, NH, next to the photograph Morning in Monesson, Pennsylvania 1983, is a card that reads, “The spirit of photography is ultimately a concern with the way of seeing and encountering the world. For me it is a combination of visual aesthetics and social action.”
It may have been the first time I saw the words “social action” since I left Hampshire College for summer vacation.
The quote and the photograph are by Hampshire professor emeritus Jerome Liebling. The show at the Currier, running until September 19, is Jerome Liebling: Capturing the Human Spirit. Twenty-nine pictures span Liebling's 63-year (and counting) career as a photographer.
I came for the exhibition's opening, along with a number of other Currier members, to hear the (miked) conversation between Liebling and NH resident and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns 71F.
Jerome Liebling – Ken Burns conversation
“I was a student of Jerome Liebling from 1971 to 1975 to 2010,” Burns began. He described how Liebling influenced his work, while at Hampshire and afterward. “Many of these photographs are familiar to me. They've always spoken to something that has trickled down into my work.”
Of his experience in the film and photo program at Hampshire, Burns said, “What was so amazing for me was meeting people who were trying to tell me that there is more excitement in what was, and is, than anything that they can come up with in Hollywood.”
Of Liebling in particular, Burns said that his teacher showed him “the power of individual images.” Perhaps this explains the origin of the slow pans across still pictures that characterize Burns's documentaries?
Liebling also talked about showing what is. He told us about the arguments that he had with his father while growing up in Brooklyn, NY. “My father and I would have arguments about 'America,'” he said. “How can I convince him that there are some things that aren't working?” He began taking pictures of the world around him, and showing them to his father: “Hey Pop, explain this.”
He also reflected on the changes in himself that he could see from one photograph to another, from 1947 to the present. “I realize that I was a different person each time.”
From there, their conversation touched on how the experience of children in supermarkets has changed in the last seventy years—“Now they get swung up into that seat in the shopping cart,” Liebling said, “And I wonder what kind of view of the world that child has,”—on Scripture, and on the Spanish Civil War.
What does it really mean to “see”?
Liebling and Burns also talked about what it really means to “see” a picture. Liebling observed watching Burns's Baseball takes four hours, but that a photograph has no set viewing time. “I wish you could put a little thing on a picture: 'This is a two-minute photograph.'”
When Liebling said that, he gestured to Native American Woman, Red Lake, Minnesota 1953. For the next few minutes, people in the audience kept glancing back at it.
I was able to meet both Ken Burns and Jerome Liebling. Before their conversation, Burns and I talked about Hampshire's uniqueness, and how after 40 years the experience is still different from being “stamped out” by other schools.
Liebling told me how this event at the Currier developed, from the museum asking him about getting more of his pictures in its collection, to Liebling coming up for an exhibition of his work, and asking himself, “Why don't I see if Ken can come up with me?'”
“And, you see, here it is,” he concluded, gesturing around the room.