student in media lab

Liebling Center Remarks by Ken Burns 71F

Liebling Center Ribbon Cutting Ceremony
May 16, 2009

When our unusual and complicated Republic was born, this sometimes favored land was graced with the talent, energy, wisdom and foresight of many remarkable individuals who have in the intervening years been obscured by the deadening cliché "founding fathers."

But they were just men; men who gave not only voice to our political and social and even spiritual aspirations, but served as guides and mentors for the next generation of leaders in arts, literature, science and religion, as well as politics, law and military affairs.

Their words are their finest legacy, the DNA of our present civilization, storing and encoding the best of us for posterity. The example of their lives reveal their startling brilliance, honor, and compassion, and we feel a little bereft today, lacking as we do, living in this mindless consumer society, an interest in real heroes, real mentors of this stripe.

Throughout their writings, we find these men warning each other constantly about Ambition. Not to have it; to be aware of those who do; to lament its influence in the course of human events. Today, we find ambition an admirable quality, but for those earlier extraordinary individuals, ambition was seen as simply selfish advancement disconnected from personal and professional honor, community responsibility, and the obligations of a virtuous and spiritual existence. Today, ambition is the jet-fuel of our get-ahead world; then it was a toxic by-product of a soul in peril, a soul not yet touched by what a later political leader, Abraham Lincoln, would call "the better angels of our nature."

I bring this up by way of starting a discussion about Jerome Liebling, my mentor, an extraordinary man, free of ambition yet possessed of the same dignity, honor and integrity that has informed the work of the greatest among us, no matter the field.
For more than sixty years Jerome Liebling has somehow managed to balance a rich and prolific life of making great photographs superb, achingly truthful photographs with being a teacher, a great teacher, in the best sense of that word. So many of us run willingly away from teaching, because it is so difficult to do and nearly impossible to do well. I speak today as a representative of dozens of people who know how unique and special a teacher Jerry was and isand no matter what he does always will be.

As my teacher, Jerry quietly disenthralled me from my often burdensome overly intellectual approach to filmmaking I came to Hampshire filled with the theory and history of film, and a burning desire to become the next John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock and moved me, indeed, moved us all, on a discovery and appreciation of the drama that exists not in Hollywood and the human imagination, but in the myriad heroic acts of merely being on this planet, in what is and what was. He opened us, whether in film or photography, and you must realize how rare it was in this country to teach film and photography under one roof, he opened us to this heroism in a passionate 24 hour a day style.

There was always context from Jerry. I don't remember seeing a single feature film my first few years at Hampshire. Instead, in whatever makeshift facilities we could scrounge, the basement of the Library, a utility closet behind Franklin Patterson Hall, in a couple of rooms in Cole, Jerry fed us a steady diet of documentaries, independent films, cinema-verite, and experimental work. We talked about and read and debated Susan Sontag; Jerry involved us in all the currents of history (not just the top down version of only White Men) without drowning us in whatever the current fashions of the academy were; he steeped us in the special resonances that we loosely describe as the humanities. He taught us to respect the power of the single image to convey complex information, whether in film or photography, and to respect and communicate that power without undo manipulation or interference.

As students of Jerry, we looked at photographs constantly. We went to shows in Boston and New York. We invited people to come and see us and tell us what they were thinking and show us their work. He demanded of us now documentary filmmakers, that we bring the honorable practices of still photography a deeply abiding respect and concern for the subject, strong composition and other formal appreciations, and dynamism within the image he demanded that we adopt these principles. Documentary has long sought to explain the absence of these elements with the feeble excuse that just getting the scene on the fly was enough. For Jerry there could be no excuses and so if you look at the work of his film students you will see strong composition, sensitivity and care for subject matter, and a sense of history and time; that images suggest a life and reality before and after their moment.

Jerry taught indirectly I'm convinced it is the only way to convey real knowledge, real understanding. And he taught through real relationship: to a place, to a subject and with his students. It is no accident that so many of us not only merely keep in touch with Jerry, but thirty-five years later count him as a close friend; for many of us, he is family.

 The teaching his message came slowly and accrued over time, imperceptibly, like the layers of a pearl. All of this required not just a classroom relationship, wherever that classroom might be each year, with a man who was also struggling with his own work, his own questions, his own demons, but something more intangible. What I mean is that the teaching went on all the time.

He encouraged us filmmakers to set up our own film company called Hampshire Films. It was an entirely practical and Lieblingesque solution to the problem of willing students, some equipment and no money to make films. We got non-profit companies in the Valley to hire us at no wages to make documentary films at cost. They got more or less semi-accomplished films where they would not have been able to afford them with commercial companies.

We got to practice. It made it possible for me to leave Hampshire and have the confidence to start my own company and not spend years mired in someone else's vision, someone else's version of things.

Many years after I left here, still closely in touch with Jerry, I had the good fortune to work on a film about the complicated American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. During the course of a filmed interview, the architecture critic Vincent Scully told us that:

We build in relation to those who built before us, and we build in relation to those who come after us So that the city, from the very beginning, from the time cities are organized in Mesopotamia, the concept of immortality comes along Gilgamesh, the king of the city, in the end, decides that the only immortality he has is the building he does in the city. Because with the city, with our building, we extend the normal limits of our lives, in the conversation between the past and the future.

Today, we begin our own gesture of immortality. Only we take exception, a little bit, with both Mr. Scully and Mr. Gilgamesh. For we institute our building today to celebrate the many ways in which our too often pathetic species transcends its pedestrian station and creates things that will last forever, things that have the same durability as the walls of the city, the walls of a building--this building.

We have learned that what we put up on those walls initiates the same kind of conversation between the past and the present and the future, offers the same kind of palliative, the same kind of corrective that Messrs. Scully and Gilgamesh suggest only architecture can do.

There is implied in all of this some bad news as well as good. Namely, that as we become aware of things, that as these walls and the things we put on them subtlety wake us up, re-mind us, we sense the inherent fragility of our all too brief appearance here.

We sense, with the dread that the wolf is at the door, that not only is our existence fleeting, but that it is all chaos. Not only are we fated to non-existence, but we must also accept a crushing randomness to events that actually highlights our failings, our miserable-ness.

But the good news, the news we celebrate today, with every toast of congratulations, is that a handful among us do manage to rise above this mess, to superimpose some order, some narrative, some form onto that chaos, so that the rest of us might have some toe-hold in another world free of the mercilessness just described, free of the sense that the wolf is always at our door. Some do it with science, some with faith, still others with the buildings they leave behind. Today, as we open a building, our eyes are focused more on the work and life and example of a man whose work graces the walls of such buildings, whose photographs over a lifetime of honest search and struggle have erected for many of us a bulwark against the oppressiveness of the inevitable. In these works of art are moments of generosity without sentimentality, heroism without deceit, nature without the hated nostalgia, human beings without the protective armor of artifice. All combined with a fierce and sometimes furious dedication to social justice. Here are moments that actually suggest that immortality we seek and will not have, that ignore the taunting dance of our consuming selves, that reawakens, however fleetingly, that wish in ourselves, for ourselves. It is an evanescent thing to be sure, and our language is inadequate to the complexities of its alchemy. But we are nonetheless stirred to some action, some gesture of love, some gesture of gratitude and thanksgiving, particularly in this case, for a lifetime of dedication to this ethereal impulse.

It is hard to fully comprehend the extent of the gift we have received and indeed, the relative feebleness of our response today. But we are compelled here, not just by base and ordinary gesture, not just by acknowledging that this is what one does in these circumstances like this. We come here still on the trail of that mysterious something you ignited in us, by that sense that we can, if only for a few seconds, make sense of things, see things differently.

I know, I know. I have gone too far. These are just pictures. They are, they are. But they have an impressive half-life. The free electrons given off within them and in relation to us initiate chain reactions too powerful to ignore. And these pictures accompany and bear witness to a life so human, fragile and flawed to be sure, but essentially, defiantly, positively human, that many of us here have striven, however imperfectly, to be like you. Not to mimic, but to intuit from your example direction. We are humiliated by our own fraudulence (a fraudulence you do not seem to possess). We revel in those moments when we are free of those things (like you, we say, like you), and struggle ourselves to keep alive that glimmer of art in the artlessness of the ordinary. When we do remember, we are grateful, and seek in words and deeds and memorial to express that gratitude.

Which brings us back to today and its happy, altogether happy, purpose. We come here to dedicate a building, a small gesture of immortality. We come here to strengthen this great institution and acknowledge a beloved teacher so responsible for that greatness. We come here to make tangible our thanks for all that has been imparted to us, all that has been awakened in us; a consciousness, however tenuous, we hope to carry forth from here and share. So today, we dedicate this building to seeing. To seeing (and seeking) order in that chaos, to seeing each other (and the missed opportunities of love), to seeing how the work of one human being can touch another, to extend, by seeing, the normal limits of our lives.

So it is my great honor today, echoing thoughts so many of his other students share with me, to be able to dedicate with you now, the building that will forever bear his name and thus be a reminder of the ferocity of his vision and seeing and picture making, a man who is the architect of so many of our indelible aspirations, the object this afternoon of our genuine love and affection and respect, our founding father, our Gilgamesh, Jerome Liebling.

       Ken Burns 71F


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