Burns takes Liebling's 'Walk through Holyoke'

April 11, 2013
By G. Michael Dobbs


HOLYOKE — Many people might not have heard of the late photographer Jerome Liebling, but they have heard of one of his students, Academy Award and Emmy winning documentarian Ken Burns.

Burns was the name that drew people to the opening of "A Walk Through Holyoke" an exhibit of photographs taken in the city in 1982 by Liebling that made its debut on April 4 at Open Square, a benefit for the construction fund of the Holyoke Public Library. The collection will be split between the library and Wistariahurst Museum and will be on exhibit through April 28.

The photos had not been exhibited before and Burns carefully walked around the gallery space looking at each print before his address. The photos depict portraits and cityscapes, ranging from the industrial buildings of the city to the Whiting Reservoir.

Burns called the photos a "revelation." Describing Liebling's skill, Burns said the ratio between what a photographer takes and what he or she shows is always high. "With Jerry it was far less," he added.

Liebling, who was a faculty member at Hampshire College in Amherst at that time, was an internationally acclaimed photographer who had received two Guggenheim Fellows and a National Endowment for the Arts Photography Survey Grant. His works are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all in New York City, N.Y., as well as the Boston Museum of Fine Art, the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, Calif., and the Fogg Museum of Harvard University in Cambridge. He died in 2011.

Speaking to the press, Burns said, "It's hard to put into words what he meant [to me.]"

He added that there was "no greater influence" on his career than his former professor.

"He brought respect for the single image asking us to look into this photograph and see," Burns explained.

Liebling "was seminal in re-arranging my direction," Burns said. He noted that from the age of 12, he had wanted to "go to Hollywood" and be a director such as Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford.

Burns said that Liebling was "very, very tough as a teacher," but was kind and supportive as a friend.

The man who produced and directed films such as "The Civil War," "Baseball," "The War" and "National Parks: America's Best Idea," among many others, Burns believes his mentor was "secretly pleased" with his success.

Although Burns said, "you never say never" to working on a fictional film, his schedule for up-coming documentaries is full for years. "Central Park Five" will be broadcast soon on PBS, he said and his production of "The Roosevelt," which examines the life of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, will be completed by 2014.

He is also working on a seven-part film on the life and career of Jackie Robinson, a film on the Vietnam War and another on country music with the title of "I Can't Stop Loving You."

Ask him which one of his films is his favorite, and he is quick with an answer: it's the one on which he is currently working.

Burns shed light on how Apple Computers received permission to name an effect in its video editing program "the Ken Burns effect," after the trademark manner in which Burns photographs still images. Burns said the late Steve Jobs asked for his permission to use his name, but Burns refused, as he doesn't do commercial endorsements. They subsequently struck a deal, though, in which Apple donated "tens of thousands of dollars" of computers to Burns who then distributed them to schools.

When asked if he was concerned whether or not people confuse documentaries with reality television, he said yes and added, "What we call 'reality television' is not. No one proposes [marriage] before 50 million people."

He described them as "bread and circuses" and added that [documentary filmmakers] spend up to 10 years to try to get it right."

"A Walk through Holyoke" is the anchor event for "Holyoke Points of View," a month-long series of exhibits and activities throughout the city. For more information, go to www.HPOV.org.

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