Arthur Leipzig's Great Adventure

Leipzig can be included on that long list of underrated photographers we should all know more about



It's dangerous to look at an artist's work and make too many assumptions about his or her character. In art there is artifice; there is always a strong chance it will misinform. If, however, you look at the photography of Arthur Leipzig, you will likely draw conclusions about the photographer that are entirely correct. His pictures are filled to the edges with what one critic has called a "lyric sweetness."
Leipzig, now 88 and living in Sea Cliff, New York, can be included on that long list of underrated photographers we should all know more about, and with any luck his work will soon be rediscovered by a modern audience. You can see his pictures at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City, or in a fine book that came out from Long Island University Press in 2005, titled simply On Assignment with Arthur Leipzig. Or you can go here.

A longtime newspaper and freelance editorial photographer, Leipzig covered the stories that came his way, which means he had a very wide variety of subjects: swamp lumberjacks in Florida, pediatric surgeons, life in Sudan, the cellist Pablo Casals; fishermen in the North Atlantic. That last story, he says, was the toughest one he ever took on. The year was 1954, and Leipzig and a magazine editor drove from New York to New Bedford, Massachusetts during the second week of February, the coldest week of the year. As they were climbing aboard the fishing boat they were going to live on for a week, the editor, as Leipzig now recalls, "suddenly remembered something he had to do back in his office. So he gave me his pencil and pad and said, 'Take notes.'" Leipzig worked the story by himself. "I was throwing up out there for three days," he says.

Looking over his work, two basic themes appear. One has to do with jobs and the way men earn their living, from the New England fishermen to coal miners in West Virginia. This interest may in some way reflect Leipzig's personal history. After growing up in Brooklyn and dropping out of school in 1936, he "wandered around the country" working as a truck driver, on various assembly lines, and finally at a glass factory in Houston. While carrying a piece of plate glass, he cut himself badly and lost the use of his right hand for 14 months.

A friend suggested he spend the time taking a photography class at the Photo League in New York, and that is where he met his mentor, photographer Sid Grossman. "Two weeks into Sid's class, and I said, 'Oh, this is what I want to do," Leipzig recalls. "From that moment on there was never any doubt that I would become a photographer." He went on to work for the vaunted picture newspaper PM, the old INP news service, and then as a freelancer for magazines such as Look, Life, and Parade. Some of those years as a freelancer he recalls with mixed feelings. In his book he writes, "Freelancers tend to lead a manic depressive existence. There are times when you are so busy you wish for a day off, and then there are the jobless days that stretch into weeks, and you become anxious."

The other major theme that appears in Leipzig's work is children. I am going to go out on the limb here and say that he photographed the children of New York better than any other photographer, Helen Levitt included. (I'd like to hear other opinions on this point.) It's not just that the pictures are extraordinarily composed; it the sense of powerful freedom and great respect they captured. "I don't know why I photographed children so often," says Leipzig. "I just loved children, I guess. Maybe I was just a big kid."

Once, he came across a group of kids playing war games, "and they were going at it with marvelous imagination-oh, people were dying everywhere. And I came up with my camera, and as soon as they saw me they all lined up for a portrait. I said to them, 'I don't take pictures that way, but if you go back and continue to play like you were before, I'll take your picture. And they did, as if they'd never seen me. It was wonderful the way they could just forget this adult was there."

Back when he was studying at the Photo League, his teacher, Grossman, challenged Leipzig to "go to the museum" to learn what kind of art he responded to. "He said, 'Have you ever been to the museum?' Well, how did I know that the museum he was talking about was the Museum of Modern Art?" Eventually Leipzig would see his own pictures at the museum, included in Edward Steichen's "Family of Man" exhibition.

He later spent 28 years teaching photography at Long Island University. It was another thing he could do with a life that at one time had seemed directionless. "At first I didn't want to get into that kind of this," Leipzig says. "But my wife, Mimi, had good advice: She said, 'Take the job. If you don't like it, you quit. I thought that made good sense, so I did. And I loved it."

This article originally appeared on the State of the Art blog. Feel free to leave your comments there and add to the discussion.