Archie Lieberman

Photography was something I was seriously interested in as a young teenager. My parents supported my interest and watched as my hobby flourished into a passion. Because of their confidence in me I was able to have good cameras and a wonderful darkroom.

For my 15th birthday my father bought me a 35mm Nikon F camera. The Nikon F was an expensive professional camera. It was the Porsche of cameras. A few weeks later, mom took my sisters, me, and my friend, Bill Wallin to Adli Stevenson’s farm in rural, IL to attend an old fashioned political rally. Stevenson was running for Illinois senator and my parents were ardent democrat Stevenson supporters.

Thousands of people turned out.  Politicos gave speeches from a makeshift stage, there were hay rides, a Dixieland band, and vendors selling hot dogs and cotton candy.

It was fun for me to make photographs imagining I was on assignment to document the event. In the midst of all the excitement I spotted a professional photographer. He was  wearing white jeans, and a pin stripped shirt draped with three Leica cameras each with a different focal length lens.

I watched intently from a distance as he paused to light a cigarette. I think it was a Camel straight. As he paused to smoke his cigarette he was all the much more aware of his surroundings. Nothing moved without his notice. His Leica cameras were poised easily within reach as would be a soldier’s weapons.

I wanted to photograph him but feared I would be noticed and he might disapprove. The sight of this professional photographer and his Leica cameras was so intriguing I simply had to take his picture.

I quickly lifted my new Nikon to my eye and at great risk of discovery, snapped the shutter from where I stood 25 or 30 feet away.  I knew it was not going to be a particularly good photograph.  Nonetheless, I was determined to capture the image of the photographer I hoped to be like one day.

As soon as I clicked the shutter he turned and walked toward me. Damn I thought to myself.  “I knew this would happen!”  My young heart beat fast as I feared a confrontation.  Would I be criticized for taking his picture?

My fears were quickly relieved when this man warmly greeted me saying “That’s a very fine camera you have there son”. He went on to say that “If you take care of that camera it will last your whole life and take you around the world. You will meet famous people and have wonderful experiences. Photography is good career and will open up the world to you.”

I was amazed by his calming presence and supportive words. I spent the rest of the day happily making photographs encouraged all the more by the delightful encounter with this photographer.

When we returned home I rushed to my darkroom to develop the photographs from the day.  I made an 8” X 10” print of the image of this photographer and taped it to the wall of my darkroom right next to my enlarger.

That photograph “spoke” to me for years as I printed photographs in my darkroom.  I would often “consult” the image as if to gain insight to the vision I had of being a professional photojournalist just like the man in the photograph.  That image personified all of what I aspired to.

When I painted the walls of my darkroom two years later, I carefully removed the dried masking tape holding that print and taped it to the back of the darkroom door.

My interest in photography grew throughout my high school years.  The photojournalist depicted in the photograph on the wall of my darkroom continued to “teach” me.  I held him in high regard as the icon of my desire to be a professional photographer.  He was my role model.

Hundreds of rolls of film past through my cameras and developing tanks.  My career in photography was being defined all the while guided by the image of the photojournalist I encountered in my youth that day at the Adli Stevenson rally in 1965.

When I was finished with high school I wanted to go to college primarily to advance my photography career. Columbia College in Chicago was my school of choice.  The faculty there was composed of working professionals in the communication arts.

The Summer of 1968 I interviewed with the head of the Columbia photography department, Jim Newberry.  He was a kind, gentle person who admired my portfolio telling me that I was already more advanced in photography than all of the other students.  He suggested that I enroll in the advanced photojournalism class taught by Archie Lieberman, a famous photojournalist from Look Magazine.

The following September I began my first semester at Columbia. I took the train downtown and found the bus that would take me to Columbia College on East Ohio Street near Lake Michigan.

The first day of class was quite an experience.  None of the other students could possibly have shared my excitement that day.

Archie in class with a display of my photographs in the background.

The instructor, Archie Lieberman was the man in the photograph that had adorned my darkroom wall silently speaking to me the past three years!

Can you imagine how my mind raced as I sat in class the first day of school?  I was so excited I could hardly pay attention.  When the first day of class ended, I raced from my seat to personally greet the instructor.

To my utter amazement Archie greeted me saying “It’s good to see you again my friend. How have you been?”  I was dumbfounded that he remembered me.

The evening before the next day of class, I carefully removed the print of Archie from my darkroom door so I could present it to the man who had so inspired me.

The class session flew by as all I could think about was sharing that print with Archie.  He graciously received the photograph and then lifted his Leica camera and took my picture.  The next week he presented me with a print of the photograph he took of me.

From then on I would arrive an hour early to meet Archie for breakfast in the local coffee shop. One memorable day after class Archie took me to Gamma Photo Labs, the lab of choice of Chicago professional photographers where we walked right into the darkrooms.  Archie introduced me to the technicians.  We also visited Helix camera where  professional photographers bought their gear and he introduced me to the owner, Selwin Schwartz telling him that I was a VIP.

I studied photography with Archie Lieberman for three semesters at Columbia College.  My career was accelerated and I was personally inspired.  Archie spent numerous hours with me before and after class.  I was in awe of him and his personal attention.

The last day of my last class at Columbia, Archie and I sat together in an empty classroom after the other students had left.  As I quietly pondered what life was going to be like after my Columbia experience and without weekly doses of Archie’s influence, I noticed that he was watching me apparently awaiting my undivided attention.  He must have been thinking similar thoughts because he looked me straight in the eye and calmly and deliberately said I want you to know that YOU are the reason I am teaching this class”.

For all I know, Archie told all of his students the same thing. I humbly took his words to heart and will forever be grateful for his most excellent example and for all of the hours of his gracious personal attention.  God bless you Archie.  

P.S. The last time I spoke with Archie was June, 2006.  He told me that he had googled my name and discovered this article.  He said the photograph I took of him was his wife’s favorite.  He added “you are a good writer”.  It was a wonderful, warm, and long conversation.  We talked about getting together again soon.  Sadly that never happened. 

Archie passed away March 13, 2008.  I thank God for his friendship and look eagerly forward to seeing him again in heaven.