The People, Yes

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

Let us now praise celebrity stroke books.

This fall, US magazine--a subsidiary of the Jann Wenner media conglomerate--will publish two collections of photographs devoted to Winona Ryder and Brad Pitt. Ryder: slight, fetching, delicate--gamine by way of Vogue. Pitt: boyish at the mouth, chiselled through the middle, almost unnatural in the posterior. The titles, Winona Ryder and Brad Pitt, are large-format, glossy, and hardbound, and include several dozen ingeniously posed photos of the subjects as presented by a handful of technically facile and handsomely paid photographers. Retail price: $24.95 before the standard 10 percent markdown at all Barnes & Noble superstores.

Also available this September is a photographic collection that our national entertainment state would have exiled to the nether-regions of the coffee table: Jerome Liebling: The Minnesota Photographs (published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press). There are 118 black-and-white photographs here, ranging chronologically from 1949 to 1969, and while I will soon try to survey the amazing range of the work--from reposed portraits of Catholic clergy on Minneapolis's bulldozed skid row to brutal scenes in a South St. Paul slaughterhouse--I'm afraid the only way I can begin to define its vision or worth is through a series of clumsy oppositions:

Liebling is hard where Winona and Pitt are soft; expansive where they are narcissistic; generous where they are materialistic; humane where they are starkly inhuman; substantial where they are celluloid.

And, above all that, Jerome Liebling suffers fool questions on the phone, as he no doubt learned to do over some 40 years of teaching, first at the University of Minnesota and later at Hampshire College. "There is no doubt that in the entertainment society--the celebrity society--we have, [that] if you asked someone to name a photographer, they'd say Avedon or Annie Leibovitz," Liebling explains. "They've got the money, the push, the energy to present that world. And it's false to the people. It's for the sales. It's to keep people jumping and buying. And it serves that purpose very well.

"At all times there are attitudes people have toward taking pictures. The idea that photography is the truth--that idea has been diminished. But its investigative possibilities--the possibility to be of the world--remain."

Here's a scene from that world--Liebling's, and also our own. The setting: Le Sueur, Minnesota. Summer, 1953. "I had always thought of farming as a pastoral life," Liebling, a Brooklyn native, writes, "replete with native strength, all-knowing men and women, fertility." Visiting the Minnesota River Valley for the first time, he finds instead 1,200 migrant workers picking and processing corn and peas for the "Jolly" Green Giant--an ironic and apt name for the agri-business that had (in Liebling's words) successfully moved the factory to the fields.

One of these fieldworkers is a Bahamian man, maybe 30 years old, standing shoulder-deep in corn tassels. His shirt is ribbed and stained near the solar plexus, and he seems to be wearing an undershirt beneath it. The focus is tight, the depth-of-field, short: His arms extend out of the frame, describing a position that might be 5:40 on a grandfather clock. Yet his countenance resists classification: the head canted slightly to the left; the skin bumpy and gleaming with sweat; the expression a passionate cross of exhaustion and serenity; the eyes, looking up at something unseen beyond the brim of a shallow hat.

I would argue that these brown pupils are looking not only up, but back--to some intimately familiar and wretched history just past the reaches of modern memory. And though this photo seems more sentimental than most in The Minnesota Photographs, "Bahamian Fieldworker" also embodies what author Estelle Jussim calls "a pervasive secular sorrow" in her excellent introduction to Jerome Liebling, Photographs: 1947-77. "This sorrow suffuses his images with a sense of loss of any personal god who could somehow be held accountable for all the searing horrors of the twentieth century," Jussim writes.

Jerome Liebling had an intimate acquaintance with what might be the hallmark of the century's horror: World War II. When the photographer arrived in Minnesota in 1949 to take up a newly created teaching appointment at the University of Minnesota, he was 25 years old, and had already served three years overseas in the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army. Back at Brooklyn College on the GI Bill, he'd been influenced by the formal, compositional theories of the Bauhaus and the realist sympathies of New York's Photo League.

But Liebling would have to learn on the fly. For at the same time as the photographer began to reckon with the physical qualities of his new environs--the spare streets and unfamiliar ethnicities, the strong light and ceaseless, undulating horizon--the landscape around him was undergoing its own tumultuous swells toward a big new industry, architecture, and economy.

Adecade before Liebling's arrival, writers for the WPA Guide to Minnesota had seen fit to champion the grain elevator as the esthetic standard-bearer for the state: "Everyone has seen the rhythmic repetition of these cylindrical forms accented by the shadows made by the hot summer sun, and the whole dignified mass set against the sky; yet it remained for European visitors to discover that while Minnesota sought for artistic expression in other directions, it had achieved in its grain elevators a signal triumph of functional design."

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."

Jerome Liebling presents slides from The Minnesota Photographs Thursday, 7 p.m. at the History Center in St. Paul, and Saturday, 7 p.m. at the Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul. Liebling will also speak and sign books Saturday, 11 a.m. at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Sunday, 1 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Calhoun Square, Mpls. Call 296-2264 for more information.

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