At the end of last week I had the pleasure of traveling to Amherst, Massachusetts to tape an interview with Jerome Liebling, a member of the Photo League in the late 1940s. Liebling is best known to CMA for this terrific picture:
The best part of my work at CMA is getting a chance to meet artists and scholars, and to sit and talk about art and ideas. Mr. Liebling was incredibly hospitable and generous with his time. CMA Chief Curator Catherine Evans conducted the interview, and I really enjoyed hearing about Liebling’s long career as photographer and educator.
‘Butterfly Boy,’ above, is a favorite to CMA visitors and staff. The dark triangle of coat topped by the face of a cute kid in a dapper hat – it’s an image that immediately grabs and holds your eye. A viewer might then notice the kid’s shoes, which are ragged and barely held together by the laces. That may lead to other ideas about the picture and the kid, and the picture becomes something more than simply a beautifully-composed photo of a child.
Liebling talked to us at length about the social consciousness that motivated his work, and his efforts to document aspects of American city life that aren’t pleasant or fair. With this in mind, ‘Butterfly Boy’ started to look a little different to me. Previously, I had seen this photo as something familiar. The kid looks like a lot of other kids I see, even if the style of his clothes and the fender of the car behind him mark the photo as something from the past. But after hearing and thinking about Liebling’s motivations for the work, the picture begins to feel less familiar, and I realize that I know a lot less about the kid and his experiences than I thought. It’s a powerful image, and as pleasant or beautiful it may at first appear it is also complex and provocative.
The picture hasn’t changed since it was taken, but the world has, and the way we view ‘Butterfly Boy’ is certainly different than the way it would have been viewed in the 1940s. I guess that’s one of the great things about art: the art doesn’t change, but its meaning does, and that’s what keeps it interesting.
Educator for Adult Programs/Multimedia Producer