HOLYOKE – Jerome Liebling (1924-2011) was a city guy. Born in Brooklyn, he took some of his best-known photographs in cities: a little boy in Harlem, his coat aswirl; a dozen people seated around a frieze, themselves looking like a frieze, in Manhattan’s Union Square; a slaughterhouse worker in St. Paul, vast in bulk and aghast in expression. There are many more.
Such an urban guy’s decision to relocate to Amherst in 1969, to teach at Hampshire College, might have seemed like asking for trouble. Yet the move didn’t affect the quality of Liebling’s work. The photographs in his book “The Dickinsons of Amherst,” for example, combine strength and delicacy just the way Emily Dickinson’s poetry does. Clearly, Liebling was at home amid his new surroundings.
Of course the Pioneer Valley isn’t just college towns and organic farms. It’s Holyoke, too. Despite being so small, just under 40,000 people, it’s a city with a rich array of contrasts. There are splendid structures of brick and stone, bespeaking a prosperous 19th-century past. There are far less impressive structures, bespeaking 20th-century decline and blight. And nearby is the Connecticut River, a reminder of the open spaces and natural beauty that first drew settlers to the valley.
These features were present three decades ago, too, when Liebling undertook a photographic tour of the city. The results of that tour, “Jerome Liebling: A Walk Through Holyoke – 1982,” are on display through April 28 at two locations in the city, the Holyoke Public Library and the Wistariahurst Museum.
It’s a small show. There are 14 photographs at the library, 14 different ones at the museum. They’re color photographs. Liebling was the rare photographer who, having excelled at black and white, went on to excel at color. You can see Liebling’s background in black and white in how beautifully organized so many of these pictures are. Again and again, they derive structural order from elements in the image. Rows of windows, sets of columns, the repeating risers and supports of exterior staircases: They provide a natural geometry within the larger geometry of the frame.
That structural order goes with the happy human disorder that populates so much of the show, and populates is the word. There are several reasons why Liebling responded so well to color. It’s warmer. It accommodates texture better. It increases the amount of information available in the image. But the main reason is also the simplest and most basic: Color is more human.
What mattered most to Liebling was people. (That’s one reason he was such a celebrated teacher.) He’s awfully good with brick and stone in “A Walk Through Holyoke.” He has a fine eye for the loveliness of pediment and entablature. He also had a fine, cool eye for weed-filled lots and graffiti-covered plywood. But he’s even better with flesh and blood. The people in these pictures aren’t types or case studies. They’re individuals. None of the pictures have titles. They don’t need any. They have something more important (and much rarer): personality.
The contrasting spaces for “Walk” are worth noting. Wistariahurst is a house museum, an impressive Gilded Age pile. The photographs hang in a small room on the second floor, and a large bay window offers lovely light. The space has the intimacy, and simplicity, of a Dutch interior. As for the library, it temporarily resides in the auditorium on the second floor of Holyoke City Hall. (Currently undergoing renovation, the library building is expected to reopen in the fall.) With its stained-glass windows and soaring vaulted ceiling, the auditorium is one of the grander public interiors in the Commonwealth. The space is very much worth visiting for its own sake. It is not, however, suited to the display of photographs. Some of them are, in fact, hung above a desk. The only way to see them at all well is to ask the two librarians who share the desk to move aside. It’s hard to imagine someone as courteous as Jerry Liebling asking a couple of people to interrupt their work for his sake. But these are photographs worth interrupting for.
At: Wistarihurst Museum, Holyoke, 238 Cabot St., through April 28, 238 Cabot St., 413-322-5660, wistariahurst.orgMark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.