For the first time in some years I pulled Neighbors from the shelf and looked at the pictures and re-read to copy. And perhaps because I realised than one of the principal subjects, Billy Hammer, was just 12 days younger than I am and that I’ve outlived him by 23 years the book hit home in a raw emotional way this time around.
And as it happened a copy of my original critique of the book was sitting in the front, so I’ve appended it here. I probably wouldn’t write it the same way now.
Archie Lieberman 1926 – 2008
No, not the dreadful television soap, but an interesting book of black and white photographs from American photographer, Archie Lieberman. Neighbors is an extra-ordinary 40 year documentation of a small Illinois farming community. Lieberman first went to the small town of Scales Mound in 1954, to photograph a
young farm girl who had won a national sewing contest.
Something about the place struck a chord with him, and he kept returning to photograph them time and time again. Eventually, in 1973 he bought a farm there, eventually moving to the town permanently in 1983.
In 1974, twenty years after his initial shoot, he published his first book on the community — Farm Boy — which was widely acclaimed. Neighbors is his latest effort and is the distillation of 58,584 photographs he has taken of the land
and its people.
In those 1627—odd rolls of 35mm film, he has shot photographs of successive generations of Scales Mound residents. Finally editing them down to 174 frames for this book. Taken all together it is a considerable achievement, but individually the pictures range from the remarkable to the banal.
This does not detract from the power of Neighbors, as that’s as it should be. Life is not all high drama, it has more of the banal than it does of the exquisite. Some of Lieberman’s photographs are as warm and friendly as a pair of old woolly
socks. Others confront and intrude showing that living in a small insular community has its ups and downs.
Happy shots of weddings and other family events, jostle uncomfortably with photographs of farmers being sold up and the bleakness of a not very prosperous existence. All of them accompanied by an unsettling text which is a mixture of
Lieberman’s observations and first person dialogue from the subjects themselves.
Despite what has obviously been a warm, and close relationship between Lieberman and the people he has photographed, few of the shots show any sense of involvement. Lieberman is almost always the detached observer. In some of the pictures you sense that the subjects recognise this and confront the camera, and the photographer, with uncompromising directness.
Lieberman, I guess, exhibits what Susan Sontag described as “the predatory side of photography” (On Photography) often shooting with an objectivity at odds with his involvement in and professed love for, the community.
I cannot remember ever being confronted with a work quite like this before. It is a documentation almost as obsessive as August Sanders photographic recording of “the German people”. Yet it differs from Sander‘s clockwork-like precision of pose and lighting — his people could have been department store dummies — in that the locations cross the community and the time the photographs were taken span forty years.
We meet one of Lieberman’s subjects (the Farm Boy, perhaps?) Billy Hammer at the age of thirteen, then 14, 18, on his wedding day, the birth of his first child, then at 29 and again at 44 a few years before he died. At least four of these
shots were taken in the same place with the subject standing in, essentially, the same pose.
The effect is uncanny, and ultimately rather pathetic. I felt like a voyeur, feeding on the private life of a person who went from a good looking kid, through a handsome young father to a worn out belly-over-the-belt man to dead in less than forty years. If this is life on a farm in small town America. I
don’t want it.
At least Neighbors does provoke a reaction. Far too many coffee table photographic books do not. They’re full of pretty pictures, forgotten as soon as the cover is closed.
Neighbors isn’t like that. There are a number of photographs which stick in the mind, rather uncomfortably – the photograph of Billy Hammer on the dustjacket is one; another is of a farmer waiting with his lawyer for the outcome of a
meeting of his creditors, and the third is of the same man waiting while they appraise and value his property. They are powerful pictures which ram home the effect of rural crisis on people. And to my mind much more powerfu than any number of shots of dried up water holes, cracked earth or carcasses of dead cattle and sheep.
While some of the photographs do locate Scales Mound in the United States, a number of the portraits are placeless. They could just as easily be photographs of Australians, or Russians or Germans — and that again is rather unsettling.
Ordinary people are ordinary, regardless of where they are born.
Lieberman’s technique is virtually flawless; his prints are superb — even in reproduction; his sense of composition is, perhaps, not everything it could be, but for me the main drawback to Neighbors, is ultimately that it lacks passion. Archie Lieberman is too clinical and objective — it would be interesting to see what William Klein made of the same subject, for example – and for this reason the book misses out on greatness. But it is competent, and it is very interesting. It is also worth the $75.00 being asked for it.
Neighbors is still listed as being available on Amazon. My edition was printed in 1993.