The People, Yes

A collection of Minnesota photographs from Jerome Liebling reveals his hard brand of humanism.

In Minnesota Photographs, Liebling pays similar tribute to these structures--at the same time revealing the etiolated, masked mill-workers servicing the dusty fruit of the elevator further down the production line. So too, there are close-ups of barley, grain, and soy; a shot of a suited trader in the Grain Exchange with his head half-sunk in a metal bowl of the stuff; and a patchwork sampling of railway logos for the trains that carry it all away. In an introduction to the book, the redoubtable American Studies professor Alan Trachtenberg--a friend of Liebling's from their early years together at the UM--champions the systemic truths uncovered through this photo-cycle. "An entire industry based on the process of transformation--of plant into grain, grain into food, food into money, and money into the social power represented by the city skyline--appears when we see the images as a whole body."

The latter part of this formulation--the new skyline and the booboisie who built it--does not escape Liebling's unflattering attentions. His camera goes inside the boardroom of Honeywell, or a candle-lit banquet for the Institute of Arts, and uncovers a theater of stiff conventions and grim expressions--of walking stiffs, really: the lurid doppelgängers to Life magazine's sunny America. In one 1962 shot, it's the shellacked sworl of an executive's thinning hair; in another, the taut visage of a Woman's Club official (and Nancy Reagan lookalike!) scowling at the podium over a plastic plant. Without turning to overt satire, Liebling here showcases the acuity behind his craft. Jussim uses such pieces (along with the artist's better-known political portraits) as evidence that Liebling is "not as naive as he sometimes pretends to be." His is a hard, sure brand of humanism.

Liebling manages to capture this same irony in a long-focus study of a parking lot. He photographs a seemingly endless grid of cars circling low-slung corporate sites--all on the demolished grounds of the old Gateway District of Washington Avenue. Where Liebling had once portrayed the hard-luck denizens of Minneapolis's skid row, he now coolly displays their mechanical replacements from the commuter culture. The scathing title given this paved wasteland: "Urban Renewal Area," 1963.

"When I photographed in Minnesota, there was a certain sophistication," Liebling says of the city that, under his watch, morphed from a sleepy backwater to a self-impressed corporate town. "The grassroots attitude of the state was more apparent in the '50s. It's hard work to farm, or to live in the North... But [the city] has since taken on another kind of sophistication--like the people who built that downtown. Back then there was only the Foshay Tower and it was a small downtown. There was no attempt to be a New York or a San Francisco.

"The new buildings that came personified the money that was there and a certain attitude the people wanted to attain. Could you photograph downtown Minneapolis today without photographing the buildings? I don't know."

On a personal note, I am embarrassed to admit that I have made it some 1,400 words into this review without once mentioning Liebling's visually poetic documentary on the Indians of Red Lake (made with collaborator Allen Downs), titled "The Tree is Dead" (1955). Nor have I discussed in any depth the terrible verities of the famous slaughterhouse series, shot over a decade, and its terrible metaphors about men and butchery and the cruel force of our food. Nor, at that, has there been mention of the wrenching photos taken in the St. Paul Home for the blind, or the state schools and hospitals for the mentally ill, retarded, and handicapped. An autistic boy with leather blinders clutches the arm of his guardian. A retarded girl with a toothy smile stretches her arms high above a primitive wood-backed wheelchair. Liebling's vision in these pieces transmogrifies easy compassion into a courageousness I do not think I have ever seen before.

They are pictures of another time, now outside the scope of most photographic interest, and perhaps outside the range of the possible. It is nearly inconceivable that people could pose so un-self-consciously in the age of Winona and Brad and their endless analogs. Today, everyone is her own press agent; everyone imagines himself on the pages of Entertainment Bleakly with infinitely amusing expressions and smartly rippled musculature. Call it vanity or call it inverted modesty; people are afraid of the camera.

"We're talking about many years ago," Liebling says, acknowledging the peculiarity of his opportunities in Minnesota. "If someone came around in the grain elevators asking to take pictures, it seemed like a reasonable request. There weren't a lot of people coming around to workers saying, I'm interested in what you do. Maybe there was a sincerity I seemed to have, which I may have today.

"The world changes. The things I searched for then? Are they still interesting to other photographers? Many photographers today are more involved with themselves: tracing their own feelings, their own lives. They want to be artists, whatever that means--you can put it in quotes. But from what I hear, you still have to go to work in Minnesota. You still have the winter."

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