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obituary

Clemens Kalischer, who memorably photographed refugees and musicians, dies at 97

Clemens Kalischer’s haunting dockside images of displaced persons arriving from Europe propelled his career as a noted photojournalist.
Clemens Kalischer’s haunting dockside images of displaced persons arriving from Europe propelled his career as a noted photojournalist.Craig F. Walker/The Berkshire Eagle/The Berkshire Eagle

In one photograph from 1958, a boy studies a book in a one-room schoolhouse in tiny Peacham, Vt. — unconcerned, if he even noticed, that a camera shutter was clicking a few feet away.

A couple of years later, three masters of classical music fill the photographer’s frame: cellist Pablo Casals, conductor Alexander Schneider, and pianist Rudolf Serkin, their intense expressions forming a visual musical trio.

Clemens Kalischer photographed both scenes during a career that spanned more than 70 years and produced scores of unforgettable images, including immigrants arriving by ship in New York City, musicians at a festival in Marlboro, Vt., and a Vermont farm wife going about her daily duties.

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“The photograph,” he told the Globe in 1976, “is the witness of experience.”

Mr. Kalischer, whose health had been declining, was 97 when he died June 9. He had been living in Lenox and had settled in that area in 1951 after leaving New York City, where he had lived as an immigrant who had fled the rise of Nazism, and then imprisonment in Europe.

“I just watch very quietly. I tend to be very quiet. People hardly notice me,” he once wrote of his approach to shooting candid photographs. As for his subjects, he added: “When they feel that I am totally absorbed then they get totally absorbed.”

Though the Berkshires were his home for 67 years, he roamed the world seeking people and places to photograph. The quality of his photographs in New York City drew years of assignments from The New York Times and magazines, but he was as comfortable in villages tucked away in Italy’s mountains, or on a farm in Vermont.

Mr. Kalischer’s photographs appeared in 1955 as part of Edward Steichen’s famous “The Family of Man” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. By then he had moved to Stockbridge, where in 1965 he opened the Image Gallery, his home base the rest of his life.

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No matter where Mr. Kalischer practiced his art, his subject was, quite simply, people being people. He established such a rapport with those whose lives he captured that he was simultaneously invisible behind the camera and part of their lives.

“The role of the photographer parallels to some extent that of the immigrant, a stranger in a strange land who must depend on his powers of observation to read unfamiliar signals correctly,” the critic Miles Unger wrote in an essay to introduce one of Mr. Kalischer’s photography books.

Editors who worked with Mr. Kalischer recalled the meticulous approach he took with all parts of his work, from rigorously labeling every proof sheet to moving in with a family for a Vermont Life magazine assignment on the life of a farm wife. Spending day and night in the family’s home and barn, he was by her side for meals and for conversations, for chores, and for the few moments she kept just for herself.

“My dad embedded himself with them,” said his daughter Tanya of Lenox. “When he left, the kids were upset. He ate with them, he stayed there. He didn’t just come in and say, ‘Let me see you milking a cow.’ He followed their life.”

Some of Mr. Kalischer’s most important photos were of refugees arriving in New York City in the late 1940s. Like them, he knew what it was like to step off a boat from Europe to start a daunting new life in the United States.

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From Clemens Kalischer's series "Displaced Persons" of refugees arriving in New York City by ship in the late 1940s. (Clemens Kalischer)
From Clemens Kalischer's series "Displaced Persons" of refugees arriving in New York City by ship in the late 1940s. (Clemens Kalischer)Clemens Kalischer

“I saw the fear and the expectation in the faces of the men, women, and children and I could really feel for them, because I’d experienced the same thing,” he said in a 1999 interview with Norbert Bunge. “I think it was this empathy which enabled me to moved amongst the people and photograph them without disturbing them. I was somehow one of them and they felt it, they knew I wasn’t just a curious journalist.”

Mr. Kalischer was born in 1921 in the Bavarian town of Lindau, the son of Hans Kalischer, a psychoanalyst, and the former Ella Norden, a physiotherapist.

Anticipating the horrors that lay ahead, Mr. Kalischer’s father moved the family from Germany to France, leaving in 1933. Mr. Kalischer, who was still a German citizen, was in his late teens when he was arrested by French authorities several years later while riding a bicycle in France. He spent three years in forced labor at several locations, his weight dropping below 100 pounds.

A portrait of John Lee Hooker at the Music Inn's Lenox School of Jazz in 1951.
A portrait of John Lee Hooker at the Music Inn's Lenox School of Jazz in 1951.Clemens Kalischer

Mr. Kalischer’s daughter said his family was included on a list prepared by Varian Fry, a US journalist who helped rescue some 2,000 refugees. That led to the family’s departure on journeys by ship to Morocco, Baltimore, and eventually settling in New York.

Initially speaking only German and French, Mr. Kalischer landed a copy boy job in Agence France-Presse’s New York bureau. One day an editor sent him, armed with a borrowed Rolleiflex, to photograph the arrival of a French luxury liner that was being scrapped. What he shot impressed his editors, and Mr. Kalischer decided to pursue photography.

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He studied with teachers and other photographers at Cooper Union, the New School for Social Research, and the Photo League cooperative. Mr. Kalischer moved to Stockbridge from New York in 1951.

“One of the reasons he left New York is that he was kind of getting known, and he wasn’t a socialite,” his daughter said. “He didn’t like to chitchat.”

In 1956, he married Angela Wottitz, a dancer who was born in Austria, and who later would teach at Miss Hall’s School in Pittsfield. They had met when she and her parents were in Lenox for a weekend.

A service will be announced for Mr. Kalischer, who in addition to his wife and daughter leaves his other daughter, Cornelia of South Lee; his sister, Eva Apfelbaum of Littleton; and two grandchildren.

A 1948 photo that was in the "The Family of Man" exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1955.
A 1948 photo that was in the "The Family of Man" exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1955.Clemens Kalischer

Along with pursuing photo assignments, publishing books, staging exhibitions, and running his gallery, Mr. Kalischer taught at places including Williams College and Berkshire Community College. Among his lessons was cautioning students that photography was about far more than expensive equipment.

“Forget about the camera,” he told the Globe in 1976. “Find out first if you’re interested in the subject you have. If not, you’ll get nothing, no matter how good your camera is.”

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He had still been going into his gallery until about three weeks before he died — a habit from his years roaming the region. “I work more or less 15 hours a day, no such thing as a weekend or vacations, I am permanently busy,” he told Bunge in 1999, when he was in his late 70s. “It seems to keep me young.”

So, too, did choosing each person he photographed. Such choices were never random.

“My work is not only photographic — it’s the subject matter that’s important to me,” he told Bunge. “Things like environmental issues, sustainable farming, interaction between people and reconciliation between enemies. It’s really important to me to be involved. That’s due to my history, the Holocaust. Because if people had gotten involved then, had taken a stance, perhaps there might never have been a Holocaust and a Nazi era. We are all responsible.”

Refugees in the late 1940s.
Refugees in the late 1940s.Clemens Kalischer

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.