“I believe in functional photography because it has the quality of extreme clarity and to the audience a vivid realism. Documentation of a social scene is one of the functions to which photography is particularly well adapted.” – Sol Libsohn
A New Yorker by birth, Mr. Libsohn taught himself how to take pictures after a neighbour gave him a Kodak Brownie. After attending City College, he went to work for the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal program that enlisted thousands of unemployed artists and artisans in the depths of the Depression.
Starting out as an artists’ model for some W.P.A. muralists, he was soon drafted to record images of New Yorkers coping with hard times. In 1936 his experiences in the W.P.A. led him and others to found the Photo League, an organisation of photographers committed to the documentary style and in-depth examinations of contemporary urban subjects.
Toward the end of World War II, Mr. Libsohn joined a team of photographers at Standard Oil Company of New Jersey working on a novel documentary project whose theme was ”There is a drop of oil in the life of everyone.” The team, led by Roy Stryker, included, apart from Mr. Libsohn, Gordon Parks, Esther Bubley, Russell Lee, John Vachon and Todd Webb and was given amazingly free rein by its corporate sponsor.
Amassing about 6,000 images in five years, Mr. Libsohn created, among other things, a haunting series called ”The Trucking Story,” spending two months riding and living with truckers on their cross-country runs. The photographs included late-night portraits of the drivers and their vehicles, waitresses and diners, roadside attractions and small towns along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Another of his projects captured the hurly-burly life in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Starting in the early 1950’s, Mr. Libsohn worked as a freelancer for Fortune magazine and Ladies’ Home Journal, among many others. His work was included in ”The Family of Man,” the landmark photographic exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955, and was the subject of a recent retrospective in Doubletake magazine. In 1975, Mr. Libsohn became the first photographer to be awarded a fellowship to the MacDowell artists colony.
Mr. Libsohn taught photography at Princeton University and was represented by the Howard Greenberg Gallery in SoHo.