Tracking time

By GREG COOK  |  August 3, 2010
BUTTERFLY BOY (1949): The beginnings of Liebling’s social-documentary style are seen in this portrait.
In that, Ruwedel's style aligns with the "New Topographic" photographers of the '70s who made cool, "objective" landscape images of cookie-cutter tract-house developments, industrial parks, and strip malls. Sometimes this took on the character of collecting specimens. Ruwedel follows this anthropological style as he collects dinosaur footprints and ancient human trails. He can, however, seem more driven by the need to collect them all than by a need to make powerful photos.

But what makes these bodies of work reverberate is his subjects. "New Topographics" photos can seem like despairing, hopeless rubbernecking at our vandalizing of the earth. Ruwedel's ancient trails and tracks emphasize continuity and timelessness, places we as a species return to again and again. Seeing these paths headed toward the middle of nowhere, you wonder about where we've been and where we're going.

After serving in the Army in World War II, Jerome Liebling returned to his home town of New York and studied with Paul Strand at the New York Photo League. There he also met members W. Eugene Smith, Lisette Model, and Aaron Siskind (then transitioning to early documentary projects about Harlem and the like). He picked up some of Strand's burnished Modernist formality, as you can tell from a sensuous 1963 close-up of the needles and quilted trunk of a saguaro cactus. But Liebling turned his skill toward a social portrait of America, in the spirit of a good New Deal Democrat.

"Capturing the Human Spirit," a 29-photo career survey at the Currier Museum of Art, shows how he photographed people in New York attending a 1948 May Day parade, and African-American children on the streets. Butterfly Boy (1949) looks down at a tiny kid who looks back with a defiant stare. His hands are in his pockets, lifting up the sides of his herringbone coat to reveal his tattered shirt, his badly laced shoes.

In 1949, Liebling started teaching in Minneapolis, and he developed a major body of work about Minnesota. He photographed political rallies and mental-health clinics, black workers sweating in cornfields, stout white men with blunt knives among the bloody cattle strung up in slaughterhouses, proud but poor denizens of Chippewa and Blackfeet reservations, and the bald white men in suits governing the board of directors of a railroad. It's a body of gritty black-and-white work in the tradition of Bill Brandt's 1930s studies of social class in London society or W. Eugene Smith's 1950s survey of Pittsburgh.

Liebling went on to document ordinary lives in Franco's authoritarian Spain during a year there beginning in 1966. In 1969, he moved to Hampshire College in Amherst, where he still lives. He shot the urban wastelands of New York's Bronx in the 1970s and, switching to color, small towns dying as mining and the steel industry withered in the '80s. Morning in Monessen, Pennsylvania (1983) is an Edward Hopper–esque image of an old stooped lady in white standing alone along a vacant, seemingly abandoned main street.

Currier curator P. Andrew Spahr hits the main points, but the photos feel as if they'd lost their context and, in turn, their social critique. Portraiture has always been a major part of Liebling's work, but here it becomes the focus. The politicians are gone, as is much of the action, the poverty, the pain. It's an odd retrospective reframing that shoehorns his work into today's deadpan-portrait fad. And it makes Liebling less interesting, complex, and prickly than he actually is.

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