Former Minnesota photographer Jerome Liebling, 87, who profoundly influenced the state's professional photography community during two decades teaching at the University of Minnesota, died July 27 in Northhampton, Mass.
Liebling taught at the University of Minnesota from 1949 to 1969. After serving with the 82nd Airborne in Europe during World War II, he had studied design and photography at Brooklyn College and then film production at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was hired by the U. of Mn. to teach photography at a time when colleges were expanding their art and theater departments in response to a flood of returning G.I.s.
His early black-and-white photos were shaped by his common touch and deeply humanistic instincts. Politicians were a favorite Minnesota subjects, especially DFLers for whom he was the unofficial documentarian. Two of his six books also pay tribute to his Minnesota years: "The Face of Minneapolis" (Dillon Press, 1966) and "Jerome Liebling: The Minnesota Photographs" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1997).
“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 Liebling’s favorite photos was one of then U.S. senator Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, then a Minnesota DFL Representative in Congress, at a baseball game in 1958. A decade later in the midst of the Vietman War, Liebling had that photo printed up as a poster and, with Tina, sold it on the street outside the Chicago convention hall in which Humphrey was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president, and McCarthy — as the anti-war candidate — mounted a bitter challenge that split the Democratic party and led to the election of Republican Richard Nixon as president.
My father served in the military during World War II and had a profound dislike of anything militaristic," said his daughter, Tina. "I wouldn't say he was a total pacifist, but he certainly was against the Vietnam War."
The Brooklyn-born photographer had lived in Amherst, Mass. since 1969 when he moved there to start a film, photography and video program at fledgling Hampshire College. An alternative school that emphasizes independent projects and student initiative, Hampshire had not even opened when Liebling arrived to interview for the job.
Graced by a wide ranging intellect and infectious interest in student work, he became a popular figure at Hampshire where he is memorialized in the recently renovated Jerome Liebling Center for Film, Photography and Video. Filmmaker Ken Burns is the most famous of his many Hampshire students. He taught there for 21 years before retiring at age 67 in 1990.
"As an educator, Jerry influenced a whole generation of filmmakers, many of whom studied here at Hampshire," the college said in a statement announcing his death. "In addition to his artistry, the legacy he leaves us is that of a gifted teacher, beloved mentor, and dear friend and colleague."
He is survived by his second wife Rebecca Nordstrom, a dancer; five children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce; and five grandchildren. The children, all surnamed Liebling, are Madeline (Mark Liebow) of Shelburne Falls, Mass.; Tina (Mark Liebow) of Rochester, Mn.; Adam of Cambridge, Mass.; Daniella (James Lane) of Brooklyn, N.Y; Rachael Jane of Brooklyn.
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.
"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."