Bigger than life
Liebling’s large-scale photographs are revelatory at the Currier
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Two years ago the Yale University Art Gallery and the Smith College Museum of Art mounted Jerome Liebling retrospectives. Both shows had a strong sense of summing up. The man is 86, after all. What might another, smaller show offer that they hadn’t?
Well, what “Jerome Liebling: Capturing the Human Spirit’’ has to offer is revelation. It runs at the Currier Museum of Art through Sept. 19. There are just 29 photographs in the show, but they manage to provide a distillation of a six-decades-long career.
The revelation takes two forms. More than a third of the photographs weren’t in either the Smith or Yale shows. “People Waiting, Boston, Massachusetts,’’ for example, from 1982, could be one of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s street scenes — only it predates diCorcia’s first solo show by three years. “Mexican Mother and Child,’’ from 1974, manages to be both exquisitely tender and richly comic.
Far more important than novelty, though, is size. The images have been printed very big, most of them in the vicinity of 30-by-40-inches. Liebling collaborated with Jonathan Singer, of Singer Editions, in Boston, to create prints that are large yet exceedingly fine.
Scale in a photograph can be a distraction — even a cheat. Not here: It’s an enhancement. These pictures aren’t just bigger, they’re also fuller. The details in Liebling’s famous frieze-like “May Day, Union Square Park, New York City’’ leap out now with wondrous clarity. For one thing, you can see the image is as much a study of hands, both human and sculptural, as it is of life imitating art. Or there’s how the weave of the basket the woman is carrying in “Mother and Child, Malaga, Spain’’ chimes with the tracery of spokes in the bicycle wheels behind her.
The danger with printing negatives large is that the pic tures can look like posters: overt, simplistic, a bit crude. Even the most exacting photographer can prove susceptible to the siren song of size. Look at Ansel Adams late in his career. There’s no denying the sheer kapow of bigness.
These pictures, in contrast, in no way resemble posters. Rather, they’re like windows. One feels the presence of the rest of the world behind what’s actually seen. The kapow, and it’s there, is as much human as visual. Monumental but not overbearing, these pictures are hard to imagine as having been any other size — they feel so right.
Liebling may be as well known for his students as his photographs. He began teaching at the University of Minnesota in 1949. After two decades there, he moved on to Hampshire College, where he taught two decades more. His most famous pupil at Hampshire was an aspiring filmmaker named Ken Burns.
All the while Liebling kept taking pictures. Those pictures belong to the central documentary tradition of American photography. Fittingly, Paul Strand, one of Liebling’s teachers, studied with Lewis Hine. The sense of moral and social engagement that marks Hine’s work deeply informs Liebling’s, too.
You can see it in how so many of Liebling’s subjects return his camera’s gaze. He treats them as equals. Even when they’re looking elsewhere, their eyes aren’t averted. They’re looking and thinking just as much as Liebling is — and you can tell he likes that. It’s one of the things that draws him to the people he photographs.
Liebling’s work escapes easy categorization. It begins in documentary and ends in — well, where does curiosity end? Nearly half the photographs in the show are in color. Liebling is that rare photographer equally comfortable with color and black and white. He’s that even rarer photographer who seems comfortable pretty much anywhere he is, so long as he has a camera with him. He’s taken memorable photographs in the city and the country, at home and abroad: New York, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Mexico, Spain, Miami, and almost literally in his backyard. That would be a willow tree, in Hadley, of such surpassing delicacy one wonders if its bark mightn’t actually be onionskin.
There’s a temptation with Liebling to let the documentary impulse of his work obscure how much of an aesthete he is. A desire to change and improve the world does not mean a failure to appreciate the beauty of the world — or the degree to which artistry can be an end unto itself. Like a Dickens or Courbet, Liebling belongs to the party of art no less than the party of humanity.
“SoHo at Night, New York City’’ and “Morning in Monessen, Pennsylvania’’ are Hopper paintings in everything but medium and attribution. Reds, browns, and grays dominate the slice of glum cityscape Liebling presents in “Johnstown, Pennsylvania’’ — except that, somehow, miraculously, he’s found a rectangle of near-turquoise planted right in the center of the picture.
The temptation is to call his handling of color bravura. The textures and nuance are that skilled, that impressive. That handling is also so understated, though. The colors are just there, the way a cloud is in the sky or a smile on a face. But neither clouds nor smiles just happen.
There’s a James Dickey poem called “The Strength of Fields.’’ In Liebling’s photographs one finds the strength of vision: a solidity, a lack of pretense, a density of human fellow feeling. “My life belongs to the world,’’ the poem concludes. “I will do what I can.’’ Those words could serve as epigraph to this show, as well as the life’s work it stands for.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.