Heirs introduce the digital world to Jerome Liebling photography ‘that no one knows’
November 1, 2019
It’s a surprising selection, and it’s no accident. When Rachel Liebling, the photographer’s daughter and primary manager of his estate, decided to make 640 of her father’s photographs available for licensing through Getty Images, she had a plan.
“I was like, ‘I’m putting out the work that no one knows,’” Rachel said, sitting at the kitchen table in her late father’s Amherst home this summer.
Born in 1924, Jerome Liebling worked early in his career with the Photo League, a group that pioneered socially conscious street photography in midcentury New York City. His work is featured in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to name a few. He also was widely known as a teacher, especially in photography circles. “But you’d think he’d died in 1960,” Rachel said with a laugh.
With control of an artist’s archive comes control over his or her legacy. Unless the artist has a large foundation — think Picasso or Dalí — the responsibility usually falls to heirs. Since her father’s death in 2011, Rachel has managed his archive with a mind to showcasing later and lesser-known works. She hopes to reframe his artistic legacy, to avoid “this idea of one Liebling,” she said.
Rachel was thrown into archive management sooner than she anticipated. Just a few days after her father died, she got a call from The New York Times asking for photos for a memorial article. She was already busy grieving and preparing for her father’s service. “Right away, I was dealing with, ‘What body of work are we going to put out?’ ” Rachel said. “I hadn’t really thought about it.”
When Liebling died, he left behind 15,000 images, stored as prints and negatives in his Amherst study — proof of an active, six-decade-long career. Liebling cared deeply about social issues, a passion informed by his childhood during the Great Depression and service in World War II. He took pictures, he said, to “figure out where the pain was, to show things that people wouldn’t see unless I was showing them.”
Before he died, Liebling placed his archive in a family trust managed by his widow, Rebecca Nordstrom, and four daughters from a previous marriage. Rachel, the youngest, had experience working in the art world, so she was the logical choice to spearhead the management of her father’s archive. In the next years, she helped organize a handful of retrospective exhibitions.
Then, in February 2018, René Aranzamendez contacted Rachel about licensing her father’s photos through Getty Images. Aranzamendez is the senior editor of Getty Archive, a branch of the gargantuan online photo library dedicated to licensing editorial photographs taken before the year 2000. He had seen Liebling’s photographs online.
“A lot of these folks digitize their content, and it’s going on a website that’s fairly local. So they’re spending their resources and a lot of energy into content that’s fantastic, but the reach is never going to be 20-offices’ worth,” Aranzamendez said in a phone interview, referring to the more than 20 locations that Getty has around the globe. Photographic estates that have licensed with Getty include those of Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, and Andreas Feininger.
An inherited photography archive is “a wonderful legacy, but a huge responsibility,’” Mary Engel said in a phone interview. Daughter of the well-known photographers Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin
, Engel is founder and president of the American Photography Archives Group, a nonprofit organization that educates its members about the preservation and management of privately-owned photography archives.
Since Engel founded APAG, in 2000,
new ways have emerged to promote a photographer’s legacy. Through social media, websites, online licensing, and online galleries, archive managers can increase exposure, build audiences, and monetize more works. But they also risk losing control of the images and how they’re used and circulated on the Web. “You know, it’s scary, because anything that gets out on the Web gets out,” Rachel said. “People just think they’re public domain.”
Pursuing legal action against every Pinterest account or blog that uses your image without permission just isn’t feasible, Engel said — especially when the archive is handled by family members. Archivists can either make their photos viewable online and vulnerable to improper use, or not put photos online at all. “A lot of this is about: How much control do you want to keep?” Engel said.
The Lieblings and Nordstrom talked over the offer from Getty Images before deciding to go ahead with the project. “It was definitely an opportunity that we saw for getting Jerry’s images out there in the world,” said Nordstrom, Liebling’s widow.
After seven years of fielding individual requests, Rachel also looked forward to handing over some of the responsibility for licensing. Her contract with Getty would be nonexclusive, meaning she could still handle some requests herself. But it would free up time and extend the archive’s reach.
Rachel was still careful to impose limits. The Liebling estate’s contract with Getty allows photos to be licensed only for editorial use — meaning images can run in newspapers, but not on mugs or T-shirts. Some archivists, like Engel, will produce posthumous prints; Rachel decided against it, which means all Liebling works are “lifetime prints,” produced while he was alive.
The Lieblings receive a small percentage of the profits from each image they license through Getty. They’re not expecting to get rich from the deal, Rachel said. The most important thing is increasing exposure and rewriting the narrative about her father’s career.
Liebling’s well-known works were of anonymous people — workers, children, every-men and -women. “Most people don’t know he actually did a lot of portraits, too,” Nordstrom said. The archive includes many recognizable faces: the novelists Chinua Achebe and James Baldwin, the photographer Paul Strand, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, candid portraits of a young Ken Burns from when the filmmaker was a student of Liebling’s at Hampshire College, to name just a few.
“There was so much material there that other people — other than family, our close friends — haven’t ever seen. And some of it is extraordinary work,” Nordstrom continued. She found negatives from Liebling’s travels to Spain, which she had never seen — although Rachel remembers trailing after her father at bullfights as a girl. There were also street scenes, like one featuring three young women leaning against a car in Holyoke.
Liebling, they said, knew about the growing importance of new technologies. He always shot on film but experimented with digital printing techniques late in life. “Jerry embraced the change, because he knew it was a way for people to see his work,” Nordstrom said. “So I think he would be very much in support of this initiative that we’ve taken.”
But Rachel and Nordstrom agree that Liebling wasn’t thinking much about posterity before he died. He was just too busy. “Even at the end of his life, he was he was still working and still wanting to publish and get more of his images out there,” Nordstrom said. “He was going a mile a minute.”