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Features / Photography

American Studies: Jeremy Liebman unpacks his father’s photography archive

Photography:

Richard Liebman

Photographer Jeremy Liebman has spent a number of years cataloguing the images created by his father, Richard Liebman. Here for the first time, Jeremy tells the story of his father’s life long passion for photography and the influence it’s had on him.

At Christmas a few years ago, I decided to bring an extra suitcase back home to Dallas, and surreptitiously packed it with the dozens of envelopes of negatives that constituted my Dad’s entire oeuvre, stored in a hallway closet. Although I had grown up surrounded by a half-dozen framed prints of my father’s, having the raw material was something else entirely. Back home in New York, I spent months poring over hundreds of rolls of film. I was able to see the experiments that didn’t work and the in-between moments that he might never have deemed worthy of a print.

It was a weird sensation. In a way, I was editing found photography: places I had never been, people I didn’t know. And yet I could never forget who was on the other end of the camera, and periodically I’d see something I recognised – my childhood home, my mother, my toddler self. I was able to share parts of his life that he would never have bothered to tell me about, either because of their insignificance or for the simple fact that they weren’t remembered.

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My father married young, at the age of 21, while back home in Dallas on summer break from the University of Pennsylvania in 1961. Afterwards, he went back to school for a semester to finish a degree in the vague new discipline of “American Studies” before returning to the domesticity that awaited him back in Texas. My three half-siblings and a job as a junior account executive at a small regional advertising agency soon followed.

By his early 30s, he was divorced and restless. He had often been complimented on his photographs of his kids and decided to explore this nascent talent by taking a road trip alone with his Nikon through west Texas and into the New Mexico desert in his yellow MG coupe. On his return, he enrolled in a community college class in which his photographs of wrestlers at the Dallas Sportatorium, a large, barn-shaped wrestling and country music venue earned praise from his teacher, but his photography education came primarily through magazines, particularly Aperture and Camera, and from the photo books of Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank. He headed out to Yosemite National Park to take part in a week-long workshop called The Nude in the Landscape, run by the Ansel Adams Gallery. Alongside a coterie of like-minded artists and outsiders, he frolicked in streams and grassy fields, returning with a portfolio of artful nudes. California was calling. 

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In 1974, having married my mother, he moved to San Francisco in search of a hippie utopia or at least a break from the monotony of north Texas. Once in San Francisco, his creativity flourished. Wanting to be like the photographers he admired – Friedlander, Erwitt, Koudelka – he spent nearly all of his money on the consensus camera of the day: the Leica M4-2. He was rarely without his Leica, and to this day, he sighs wistfully when it’s mentioned. He worked as a stockbroker, but, lest you conjure up the image of a high-powered Wall Street shark, he was shy and introspective, never a natural salesman, bouncing from small brokerage to small brokerage. He walked to work every morning, through Chinatown at dawn, the Leica swinging from his neck, watching the city spring to life, drawn to downtown’s surreal incongruities. Eventually, my twin brother and I were born. 

“He walked to work every morning, through Chinatown at dawn, the Leica swinging from his neck, watching the city spring to life, drawn to downtown’s surreal incongruities.”

Jeremy Leibman

Being a serious amateur at that time meant a bathroom or basement full of chemicals, trays, hoses, and red lightbulbs. My dad has never been far from a glass of something, and once (probably often) took a glass of gin into his basement darkroom with him. In the dark, he drank chemical fixer by mistake. 

Although very intelligent and well read, my father is not one for over-analysis, so getting him to discuss intentions or themes in his work proves difficult. He shifted often between landscape, portraits, and street photography, but despite the frequent mode changes, there’s a consistent vision at play. 

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To me, the work speaks to the disenchanted spirit of the 1970s and early 80s, in the waning years of the hippie movement, after Charles Manson & Altamont. The US was celebrating its bicentennial in 1976, but despite all of the cheap rah-rah patriotism, the country was sharply divided. He photographed protests and parades, showing confusion and isolation among these facades of solidarity. There’s a sense of detachment and lassitude, a “what-do-we-do-now?” feeling. His seemingly prosaic images are tinged with an unspecified, looming menace. It’s a somewhat dark vision, but made less maudlin by his dry sense of humour. In his photograph of bored commuters on a ferry, for example, a woman’s face is frozen in what looks like a silent scream, like one of Francis Bacon’s popes.

In 1985, my parents decided to move our family from California back to Dallas. My father had begun to see a career counsellor, who suggested he try to make a career out of photography. High oil prices had turned Dallas back into a boom town and he decided to head back home to open a portrait studio, photographing Dallas’ upper middle class and their polo-wearing tots. The timing was terrible – Black Monday and the stock market crash of 1987 were just around the corner – and the idea was ill-suited to his particular photographic talents. His strengths lay in his ability to quietly collect and observe, not to orchestrate scenarios or cajole personalities. He found himself using the old Leica less and less since, in his eyes, Dallas wasn’t really a city that lent itself to the chance interactions of San Francisco. After about a couple years of sluggish business, he closed the studio and took a retail job at Barry’s Camera and Video, a regional chain. Eventually he sold his Leica. The studio’s wooden sign, proudly offering the services of Rich Liebman Fine Portraits still sits in my parents’ garage, leaning against the spare freezer.

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When I surprised my dad with a bound book of his work on Christmas Eve, he was nonplussed, shocked that these were all his pictures. Looking at the photos for the first time in decades, page after page, he exclaimed, incredulously, “I took this? Are you sure? Whose work is this?”

The envelopes full of black and white negatives start to taper off in 1986, and they stop altogether in 1987. But this doesn’t signal the end of my father’s photography. He transitioned into shooting thousands and thousands of colour snapshots of our everyday lives which accumulated into dozens of photo albums, full of birthday sleepovers, skate parks, bloody noses, Halloweens, and spelling bees. It’s a comprehensive survey of middle-class home life, all elevated by my father’s sensitive, bemused eye. It might be too tidy to say that he eventually came full circle in his embrace, or at least begrudging acceptance, of what MoMA photography curator Peter Galassi called “Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort,” but what the hell; we’re obligated to create myths and narratives about our families. One day, I hope to edit those pictures, too. 

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