Thursday, August 14, 2008

Jerome Liebling

I bought a book of photographs by Jerome Liebling a couple of weeks ago and looked through it quickly, without reading any of the text. Tonight I looked at the photographs more carefully and read the text.

Liebling is photographer with an impressive reputation. I Googled him and found a lot of museum exhibits, then checked him on Artnet, which is a source of information about art prices. I found only one photo -- a stunning one -- with a price. It was $10,000. I'm not going to buy anything of his.

According to the text, he came to Minnesota in 1949 at the age of 25, hired
to teach photography as part of the fledgling studio-arts section of the University of Minnesota Art Department... Liebling became one of no more than a handful of artists in the entire country permitted to teach photography, then still sneered at by art historians and critics, as a fine art. The founding of a national society of college teachers of film and photography lay several years in the future (he was a founding member), and for a few years, Jerry Liebling alone in Minneapolis and probably the entire state represented the embattled medium. It was not until the 1960s that photography began to experience the phenomenal rise (to the) prestige and prominence it now enjoys in galleries, museums and colleges everywhere.

The inclusion of fine art photography in the University of Minnesota program of study had a certain local and regional import as well. It was part of the rise in the value of culture in the region, especially the Twin Cities, in those relatively prosperous postwar years. The flowering of the Walker Art Center as a gallery for modern art, followed by the establishment of the Guthrie Theater, were signs that those with power in the city believed that culture made for civic prestige...

To me, there is a missing name in this, and it isn't the name of anyone with civic power. My father, H. H. Arnason, was the head of the U of M Art Department from 1947 to 1960. Given the dates, he must have hired Liebling. He was also the Director of the Walker Art Center from 1949 to 1960; and I have clear memories of him working on getting Tyrone Guthrie to bring his theater to Minneapolis.

I find it interesting that he was involved in all the innovations that the text describes.

I knew my father had done a lot of things that strike me as worth doing, but I didn't know that he was ahead of the times in treating photography as a fine art. He was, by the way, an art historian, but not a man who did a lot of sneering. He loved contemporary art and was fascinated by artists, especially living artists.

The Liebling book is good. The text doesn't talk about Liebling's politics or his class sympathies. I'd say, looking at the photos, that he didn't like the rich and did like working and poor people. If my mother were still around (she'd be 99) I'd ask her about her memories of Liebling.


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