© Jerome Liebling/Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery
Documentary photographer, filmmaker and teacher Jerome Liebling died July 27 at a hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts, from bladder cancer. He was 87.
As was one of several influential street photographers of the 1930s and '40s—Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Berenice Abbott and Gordon Parks among them—Liebling had a sympathetic eye for the plight of hardworking, ordinary folk. In the past, Leibling had said that growing up in Brooklyn, New York, during the Depression caused him to "figure out where the pain was, to show things that people wouldn't see unless I was showing them." He also defined photography as "the combination of visual esthetics and social action."
One of Leibling's most famous images is "Butterfly Boy" (pictured above), of an African American child whose intent gaze dominates the frame. The photographer was also known for his series on Minnesota slaughterhouse workers and for his portraits of Miami Beach handball players, all of which were shot in black and white. In the late Seventies, he began working exclusively in color, taking memorable pictures of his old neighborhood, Brighton Beach, a well as artifacts of 19th-century New England writers.
In 1969, Liebling founded the film, photography and video program at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and helped shape the careers of several imagemakers, including filmmaker Ken Burns and New York Times staff photographer James Estrin. Estrin, co-editor of the The New York Times photojournalism blog, Lens, wrote a moving tribute to his former teacher, saying that one of the most valuable lessons he learned from Liebling was that, "while you need to learn the technical aspects of photography, that's not what photography is about. It's about the story you have to tell. The camera is just a tool. Some people might think [the] specs are what's important in making a great photo. They're really not. I learned that first as an 18-year-old, straining to keep up with Jerry Liebling's lectures."