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Jerome Liebling, Mentor

By Roger Sherman

An older man is caught mid conversation, standing between two photos.

Jerome Liebling was a teacher of photography when there were few. He founded the photography program at the University of Minnesota in 1949 and the film and photography department at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1969. A member of the Photo League in New York, Jerry's photographs and films, whether he's shooting stockyards in Minnesota or eighty year-old handball players in Miami Beach, always affirm life. They are direct, powerful, incisive and revealing. While his work is seemingly uncomplicated, students somehow could never imitate him.

When I entered Hampshire in 1973, I was surprised to learn that film and photography students took upper level critique classes together. The latest techniques and equipment meant little to Jerry. He was interested in seeing and made us question every frame of our work. Why was a shot composed in a certain way? What was happening within the frame? And, most of all, what did it mean? Once I showed him a tightly edited group of photographs that I'd taken in Guatemala. He flipped through the pile like he was dealing a game of gin, popping a shot out of the pack every so often and placing it i n front of me: one pile represented the upper classes I had photographed, the other the poor. When he finished, six pictures stared up at me. While not a word was said between us, he was asking me a dozen pointed questions about the relationship between these pictures and my relationship to them. I got up and left. It was the best critique I ever received.

In class, much to the chagrin of the proud student on the spot, Jerry rarely spoke directly about Jerome the film being screened. My head would spin as I tried to puzzle out what people struggling in Brooklyn had to do with my film about Halloween in Massachusetts. More than once the answer came to me one or even two years later, while walking down a street or in the shower. Bang, it would hit me! So that's what he meant.

Ken Burns and Buddy Squires, with whom I founded Florentine Films in 1976, after we graduated from Hampshire, were Jerry's students, too. So was editor Toby Shimin and Karen Goodman, who with her husband Kirk Simon, also an alumnus, runs the Simon & Goodman Picture Company.

Each agreed to write a reminiscence about Jerome. We are a very small part of a surprisingly large, lucky group of professionals- filmmakers and photographers—spread out from New York to Nashville to Hollywood, who feel deeply indebted to him. Jerome remains a trusted mentor and a great friend.

Roger Sherman is a producer, director, cinematographer and photographer, winner of two Academy Award nominations and two CableAce nominations. His American Masters special Alexander Calder premiered on PBS in June.

The first time I tasted Ararat, a brandy favored by the Russian immigrants who populate New York's Brighton Beach, was also the first time I tasted a knish, an Italian ice and a hot dog bought from a Coney Island stand. Jerome Liebling, my college professor, had taken a group of film and photography students on an informal tour of these Brooklyn neighborhoods that he loved.

Thinking back on that excursion, the first of our many travels together over the last two decades, I realize that he was showing us a world that he cared about profoundly, a world of immigrants and workers, old women and young children, cramped tenement streets and a wide open boardwalk by the sea. By exploring the humanity behind these exotic scenes, he was quietly challenging each of us to figure out what mattered to us, what did we truly care about? If we aspired to become filmmakers and photographers, to become artists, then Jerry was going to show us that art begins with openness, interest and, above all, compassion.

I remember seeing his photographs of cadavers taken at a New York medical school. At first glance the twisted, partly dismembered bodies were shocking and gruesome. They were an unflinching look at mortality, but the most striking thing about these images is the humanity and personality of each individual body. Through Jerry, I understood that the human spirit remains even in these most violated souls. Jerry's persistent belief in the dignity and heroism of the folk, combined with his own brand of unblinking, curmudgeonly honesty, confronts me every time I screen work with him or talk about a project. He's a kind of walking, talking bullshit meter, constantly challenging me to examine my own ideas. Much of what I have learned comes simply and subtly from watching Jerry photograph. He exudes a combination of directness, kindness and empathy that draws Liebling people out. Strangers are somehow comfortable with this man carrying a thirty-year-old Rollerflex, who approaches with few words, usually just a look, a slight shrug that puts them at ease, invites them to be themselves.

In the late 'seventies I accompanied Jerry while he photographed New York's South Bronx. The streets looked like a bombed out war zone. We came upon a young man standing in the doorway of his building. He had every reason to be suspicious of us, uninvited outsiders wandering through his neighborhood taking pictures. Jerry simply presented himself in front of this man and his home. With neither aggressiveness nor submission, he began photographing. The resulting image is powerful. With arms outstretched across the doorway, this man presents his pride and unbroken spirit in spite of his ravaged surroundings.

This is Jerry's gift to me, a challenge to confront the world honestly and directly, while seeking out the heroism and dignity of everyday life.

Buddy Squires is an Emmy® Award-winning cinematographer and Oscar®-nominated producer. His cinematography is featured this fall on PBS in Frank Lloyd Wright, Out of the Past and Africans in America.

I first met Jerome Liebling 26 years ago while still in high school, attending the University Film Study Center's summer program at Hampshire College. A year later, when I arrived at Hampshire as a fast-year student, there was one thing I knew for certain: I wanted Jerry to be my advisor. What I could not have known then was that his wisdom and his friendship would have both a serrunal and lasting effect on my life. Jerry was the head of the Film Studies department, but he didn't really teach film or photography. What he taught was vision: he shared his own, shed light on others', and perhaps most importantly, he guided us in the discovery of ours. Even now, so many years later, I cannot fathom how he did it. But for so many of us, it worked. Like magic.

Eschewing, for the most part, technical concerns, he enveloped us in a bainge of images and helped—no, really forced—us to search out and confront the real meaning of pictures and picture making in its myriad forms. His lessons were about images: seeing them, capturing them, understanding them and reflecting upon them. Forays into Philosophy, Art History, Aesthetics and Humanism and, of course, The World According to Jerry, were standard fare in helping us to "see."

Whether the class was called Filmmaking, Photography or Video Production, the lesson was essentially the same. It evolved as you did, and it was always damned hard. But we loved it—and we loved him too. Jerry was profound and brilliant, on a daily basis (he still is). His critique was tough and challenging. He was hard to please, always pushing. I still shudder when I recall his harsh words to me upon reviewing an exhibit of photographs I'd worked on all semester. It went something like this: "I already knew you could do that. Now you need to do something you can't already do."

Over the years, his words stay with me from project to project, and I continue to seek his advice and his wisdom. For me, there is still no tougher, more important or more eloquent critic. A few years ago, when Jerry decided to retire from Hampshire College, I was invited to become a member of a search committee to replace him. For me, and for the many others whose intellectual, personal and professional lives he touched, no one ever truly could.

Karen Goodman has garnered several Oscars nominations, Emmy® Awards and the duPont-Columbia Silver Baton for Independent Production. She is a partner with her husband Kirk Simon in the Simon and Goodnum Picture Company in NYC.

Entering my freshman year at Hampshire College, with an ambitious interest in filmmaking, I was assigned to an advisor­ the person who was meant to guide me through a very unstruc­tured college curriculum. A nervous 17-year-old, I knocked on the office door of the "legendary" Jerome Liebling. He told me to come in and sit down, then he just stared at me. I didn't really know what I was supposed to do. After what felt like an awkward eternity I asked, "Do you have any advice for me?" "Stay out of cold drafts," was his answer. And so our meeting ended.

I left Jerome's office with a feeling I got used to associating with him. I was baffled. During the years that followed, I realized that after a period of bewilderment, his critiques, comments and advice always resonated with a searing clarity that, with patience, rose to the surface and remained. After graduating Hampshire in 1984, I began working as an assistant editor and then a documentary film editor. Something Jerry said to me after a rough cut screening of my thesis film has since become my own personal credo. Before we got to the end of my film, he told me to stop the Moviola. He stood up and headed for the door. "I should be able to know exactly what's going on even with sound off," he said offhandedly before the door shut behind him . After days of feeling dismissed , confused and somewhat insulted, I discovered something that is both basic and one of the most important concepts of filmmaking. I had been using shots as a kind of wallpaper. I had never really considered the potential power of communi­cating visually: the way shots can be chosen and paced to create a unique sense of time, how lingering on any one image can say more than mouthfuls of dialogue, how a simple sequence can evoke poignancy and meaning.

Fourteen years after that moment with Jerry, I still think about his words every time I start to cut a film. 

TOBY SHIMIN is a documentary film editor. Her most recent film, Out of the Past, won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

I remember a moment late in my years at Hampshire when my mentor Jerome Liebling and I were alone in a dark editing room looking at an emerging film of mine. It was still a rough cut. It still had a long way to go, and many problems were still unresolved, but I was moving forward. Jerry had been instrumental in nearly every approach I had taken, reminding me of ways of filming things far beyond close-ups and wide shots. As always, I had taken his suggestions to heart. But now we were disagreeing over something. I cannot remember now what it was, but in the past I would have yielded to Jerry, because nothing was there in me that had force. He persisted. But this time I held my ground. No, I insisted, I wanted to do it this way. I was sure I was right. Then, in one amazing moment, I watched Jerry back off ever so slightly. He didn't stop disagreeing with me. Yet, in that instant I knew he had let me go. I was on my own in a way I had not been before. And, I realized right then, that this had been a true master/student relationship. He had given me, given us all, the greatest gift-freedom.

I have thought about that moment many times in the past twenty-five years. And, it has in a way, become for me a talisman—a reminder, something to hold to. It's as if Jerry is still there looking over my shoulder, guiding me, arguing, teaching. I'm definitely my own person, but this person is suffused, I'm pleased to say, with his wisdom.

These days I see him all the time. I am privileged to say he's my friend. No matter what he is or was, he will always be my Teacher.

Ken Burns' film Frank Lloyd Wright will be broadcast on PBS on November 10 and 11. His major ten-part series on the history of jazz airs in the fall of 2000.