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Jerome Liebling; his camera captured the human spirit

Mr. Liebling taught at Hampshire College from 1970 to 1990. Mr. Liebling taught at Hampshire College from 1970 to 1990. (Michele Mcdonald/Globe Staff/File 2004)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / July 29, 2011

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Jerome Liebling, one of the nation’s foremost documentary photographers and for many years an influential teacher of photography and film at Hampshire College, died Wednesday at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton. A longtime resident of Amherst, he was 87. The cause of death was bladder cancer.

In 2004, Hampshire named its film and photography building the Jerome Liebling Center for Film, Photography, and Video. Mr. Liebling taught at Hampshire from 1970, the year the college opened, to 1990.

More than two dozen of Mr. Liebling’s students became professional photographers and filmmakers. Among them are winners of Academy, Emmy, and Peabody awards and recipients of Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts, and Fulbright fellowships.

The best-known of his students is filmmaker Ken Burns. “He was an extraordinary teacher,’’ Burns said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

“The teaching was not so much the work in class - though his classes were fantastic - as the work of life. More often than not, it was when you went with him to pick up his dry cleaning in Northampton and he talked about the look of a woman we passed on a porch or the play of light on a man standing next to a building, that’s where and when we learned.’’

Burns spoke for many students who experienced the vibrancy of Mr. Liebling’s personality, the power of his work, and the openness of his teaching.

Asked in a 2004 Globe profile to describe his teaching philosophy, Mr. Liebling said, “Seeing and encountering the world - that was it. We did it with photo; we did it with film. Take the camera, go look. . . .

“I never thwarted a student’s own desires. I would bring them what I thought was important. But if they came around and they said, ‘I’m a Pentecostal, and I’ve got to photograph in tongues, I’d say: ‘Yeah, really? All right, let’s see how we can do it.’ . . . I accepted their experience and their growth and just hoped they’d listen to what I kept putting in front of them.’’

Part of what made Mr. Liebling such an effective teacher was his ability to unite practice with instruction. Himself the recipient of two Guggenheims and a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, Mr. Liebling has photographs in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, among many other institutions.

“A wonderful photographer,’’ John Szarkowski, the late curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, said of Mr. Liebling in 2004. “The work has never been flamboyant. It’s always been under control, beautifully made, and very deeply felt, without being in any way hyperbolic.”

The son of Maurice Liebling, a waiter, and Sarah (Goodman) Liebling, Mr. Liebling was born in New York and grew up in Brooklyn.

Mr. Liebling liked to define photography as “the combination of visual aesthetics and social action.’’ Politics inspired him to start taking pictures. Mr. Liebling bought a box Brownie camera and began photographing instances of social injustice he would see on the street. He would then use the photographs as support in political arguments he would have with his father.

In Mr. Liebling’s photographs, Burns said, “the total effect is of a fierce warrior insisting on a kind of justice, a kind of truth, and an utterly American vitality. He saw in every individual his or her own worth. He brought an extraordinary sensitivity to the moment and to the person on the other side of his lens. There was a reciprocity, a giving to his subjects, as much as a taking from them.’’

The diversity of Mr. Liebling’s photographs is almost as impressive as the photographs themselves. He began close to home, in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan in the 1940s. The resolute stare and swirling jacket of the African-American child in “Butterfly Boy,’’ perhaps Mr. Liebling’s most famous image, are so arresting that it is easy to overlook how perfectly an automobile wheel well in the background frames his head.

Mr. Liebling imbued the Minnesota slaughterhouse workers he shot in the ’60s with the monumentality of August Sander’s sitters in “People of the Twentieth Century.’’ Mr. Liebling’s Miami Beach handball players from the ’70s have the dignity and bearing of Etruscan warriors.

Mr. Liebling took those photographs in black and white. In the late ’70s, he began working exclusively in color. Some of his most memorable color work showed his old neighborhood, Brighton Beach, and artifacts of 19th-century New England writers.

His renderings of interiors at Emily Dickinson’s house, a short distance from his own Amherst home, have a radiance that recall the poet’s own “Of Bronze - and Blaze.’’

After spending World War II in the 82d Airborne Division, Mr. Liebling went to Brooklyn College on the GI Bill, studying photography with Walter Rosenblum and Paul Strand. He also studied filmmaking at the New School. (Mr. Liebling later made several short documentary films.)

Mr. Liebling taught at the University of Minnesota from 1949 to 1969. He was also a visiting professor of photography at Yale University and the State University of New York at New Paltz.

His books include “Jerome Liebling Photographs’’ (1982), “The People, Yes’’ (1995), and “The Dickinsons of Amherst’’ (2001).

Jonathan Singer of Singer Editions in Boston collaborated with Mr. Liebling on his prints for most of the past decade.

“His enthusiasm was unbelievable,’’ Singer recalled in a telephone interview yesterday. “That’s so unusual for an artist of his age. I’d come to him with a new box of prints, and he was like a kid. He couldn’t wait to see it opened up.

“Another thing about Jerry? A lot of artists use words maybe too much. They try to justify and explain their work. He just went about his business, and when it was all done, it was better, clearer, more articulate, than anyone else’s.’’

In 2008, the Smith College Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery mounted simultaneous retrospectives of Mr. Liebling’s photographs. In 2010, the Currier Museum of Art, in Manchester, N.H., showed “Jerome Liebling: Capturing the Human Spirit,’’ a title that could as easily describe his career.

Mr. Liebling leaves his wife, Rebecca Nordstrom; five children from his first marriage, Madeline of Shelburne Falls, Tina of Rochester, Minn., Adam of Cambridge, and Daniella and Rachel Jane, both of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held in the fall.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.