Art, Getty Research Institute, Photographs, Film, and Video, Scholarship

Small Format, Big Style: Images from the Alexander Liberman Photography Archive Now Available

Browse 1,500 newly digitized images by the pioneering photographer. Co-published with Artstor.

The Getty Research Institute recently partnered with the Artstor Digital Library to digitize and make available approximately 1,500 selections from the Alexander Liberman photography archive, from the series “Artists and Personalities.” These selections from the archive, which holds nearly 150,000 items, were inspired by Liberman’s publications, most notably The Artist in His Studio. The images are available now both via Artstor, a subscription database for research and teaching, and the Research Institute’s digital collections.

A prolific photographer since his childhood, Liberman enthusiastically identified with the candid documentary style of the 35mm camera and its grainy aesthetic—almost all of the images in the archive were captured using 35mm. He admired the camera’s journalistic aesthetic, its soft focus, and how it disintegrated background details.

An afternoon at the Libermans / Alexander Liberman

An afternoon at the Libermans’, 1963. Left to right, Lawrence Alloway, Beatrice Leval, Barnett Newman, Alexander Liberman, Sylvia Sleigh, Robert Motherwell, and Annalee Newman. Liberman’s ever-present Leica camera is on the table. The Getty Research Institute, 2000.R.19

Liberman was a versatile artist: a painter, sculptor, and graphic designer as well as a photographer. Born in 1912 in Kiev (now Ukraine), Russia, he arrived in New York as an exile in 1941, became an art editor at Vogue two years later, and eventually rose to the position of executive director at Condé Nast Publications. During his tenure at Vogue, Liberman successfully married his passions for fashion, magazines, and art, commissioning artists such as Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, and Robert Rauschenberg to work on projects for the magazine.

A supporter of fresh photographic talent, he encouraged his assistant, Irving Penn, who worked previously for Vogue’s competitor Harper’s Bazaar, to take his first color images, and assigned him fashion shoots launching a decades-long collaboration between Penn and Condé Nast. Liberman’s editorial moves not only expanded the audience for 20th-century art, but also revolutionized the underlying philosophy of fashion magazines.

Irving Penn / Alexander Liberman

Irving Penn, 1950, Alexander Liberman. The Getty Research Institute, 2000.R.19

In the summer of 1948, Liberman, Leica in hand, embarked on a project of documenting artists in their studios, starting with Georges Braque in Normandy. The following summer, Liberman returned to Paris, photographing Henri Matisse, Maurice Utrillo, Marie Laurencin, and František Kupka—part of the group of artists belonging to the School of Paris. This “School” was not an art movement, but rather a reflection of Paris as the center of artistic creativity. Artists of all nationalities, such as Pablo Picasso (Spanish), Marc Chagall (Russian), and Georges Braque (French), lived and worked in Paris. There they produced revolutionary movements such as Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, and Symbolism—to which Liberman felt connected both personally and professionally. The photographs from his summer visits evolved into essays that were published in Vogue.

An interior of Picasso’s studio / Alexander Liberman

An interior of Picasso’s studio, circa 1949–70, Alexander Liberman. The Getty Research Institute, 2000.R.19

Memobelt / Alexander Liberman

Liberman’s Memobelt, a recording of his thoughts on Picasso for his essay in Vogue (November 1, 1956). The Getty Research Institute, 2003.M.30

In 2003, The Getty Research Institute acquired drafts and transcripts of these photo-essays as well as four scrapbooks with pasted Vogue clippings. A compilation of these photo-essays was later published as The Artist in His Studio. Apart from the journalistic intent of the project, Liberman was also fulfilling his desire to acquire views of the life of an artist. The lesson is summed up by Fernand Léger’s statement, “Either a good life and lousy work, or good work and a lousy life.”

In addition to the School of Paris, Liberman also photographed his contemporaries from the New York School, which included Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell, and Helen Frankenthaler, for his “Nine Americans,” which remains unpublished.

Barnett Newman working in his studio / Alexander Liberman

Barnett Newman working in his studio, 1960, Alexander Liberman. The Getty Research Institute, 2000.R.19

Symbolic of his two paths, Liberman’s photographic subjects also included fashion designers, aristocrats, dancers, editors, publishers, and even Nobel laureates. In addition to the artists mentioned above, the selections for these newly digitized images include images of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent, Truman Capote, and other fascinating 20th-century figures.

Christian Dior at his country house with guests / Alexander Liberman

Christian Dior at his country house with guests, about 1950–53, Alexander Liberman. The Getty Research Institute, 2000.R.19

Coco Chanel, Alexander Liberman

Coco Chanel, 1951, Alexander Liberman. The Getty Research Institute, 2000.R.19

Although he achieved the pinnacle of editorial success, Liberman never abandoned his desire to be an artist, and it is evident that he was influenced by the artists with whom he interacted. From the late 1940s and early 1950s, he ventured into series of geometric circles—reinventing the circle and referencing Tibetan mandalas. In 1963, Betty Parsons exhibited some of Liberman’s work in her gallery. It was also around this time that Liberman began experimenting with steel and welding, making large-scale sculptures that exemplified his zeal for innovation.

Alexander Liberman died in 1999 at the age of 87.

Find all newly digitized Liberman images for study, teaching, and personal use on the Getty Research Institute’s digital collections here, and on Artstor here. Most images are also part of Artstor’s Images for Academic Publishing, which makes high-resolution images freely available for use in academic publications. To request high-resolution images for use in other publications, contact the Getty Research Institute. Due to the inclusion of artworks not in the public domain, privacy and publicity concerns, and/or contractual requirements, the images are not available for unrestricted use via the Open Content Program.

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.

      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”


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