Famed photographer, U pioneer Jerome Liebling dies

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 28, 2011 - 5:16 PM

He taught here for two decades before moving back east, where his students included Ken Burns.

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A common touch and deeply humanistic instincts shaped the images of Jerome Liebling, a pioneering documentary photographer with a sympathetic eye for the plight of hard-working ordinary folks. He, in turn, profoundly influenced the state's photographic community during two decades as a teacher at the University of Minnesota.

Liebling, 87, died July 27 in Northhampton, Mass. Raised in Brooklyn, he studied photography at Brooklyn College and film production at the New School for Social Research in New York City after seeing combat in World War II with the 82nd Airborne Division in Europe and North Africa.

He was hired by the U of M in 1949 to establish a film and photography program, at a time when colleges were expanding their art and theater departments in response to a flood of returning GIs.

The now-defunct Minnesota Center for Photography staged a quasi-retrospective, "Jerome Liebling: Selected Photographs" in 2006. It sampled more than five decades of his career in about 70 images, many of them presenting working-class subjects with sympathetic but unsentimental dignity. Politicians also were a favorite Minnesota subject -- especially DFLers, for whom he was an unofficial documentarian.

"He always had a deep love for Minnesota, and a special interest in working folks," said his daughter Tina Liebling, a lawyer and DFL state representative from Rochester.

Among his favorite photos was one of Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy at a sporting event in 1958. A decade later, in the midst of the Vietnam War, Liebling had that photo printed up as a poster and sold it on the street outside the Chicago convention hall where Humphrey fended off a bitter challenge from antiwar candidate McCarthy for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"My father served in the military and had a profound dislike of anything militaristic," said Tina. "I wouldn't say he was a total pacifist, but he certainly was against the Vietnam War."

Two of his six books pay tribute to his Minnesota years: "The Face of Minneapolis" (Dillon Press, 1966) and "Jerome Liebling: The Minnesota Photographs" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1997).

"My concern is with the very structure of the picture," Liebling told the Star Tribune in 2006. "Everything has to count, but basically it's an effort to get close to the world and to reflect it. The better I do that, the more sympathy and humanity is present."

Liebling moved to Amherst, Mass., in 1969 to start a film, photography and video program at fledgling Hampshire College. Filmmaker Ken Burns is the most famous of his many students there.

"Jerry influenced a whole generation of filmmakers," the college said in a statement announcing his death. Graced by a wide-ranging intellect and infectious interest in student work, he became a popular figure at the alternative school, where he is memorialized in the recently renovated Jerome Liebling Center for Film, Photography and Video. He taught there for 21 years before retiring in 1990.

Four of his five children were born in Minnesota. He is survived by them and his second wife, Rebecca Nordstrom, a professor of dance at Hampshire.

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