Work of the Week – April 28, 2014
by Adrian Etheridge
Clemons Kalischer’s (1921- ) road to photographic fame was paved with many more obstacles than most artists ever have to encounter, and if it is true that great struggle produces great art then it is no wonder Kalischer has produced a collection of hundreds of thousands of photos documenting the struggles and triumphs of others. Kalischer and his family fled Germany in 1933 and after a brief stay in Switzerland moved to Paris, where Kalischer’s journey as a photographer really began. Though penniless, the 18-year-old bought a book of photographs by Hungarian Jewish photographer André Kertész, which he carried with him through his harrowing three-year tribulation in eight different French work camps. As the story goes, the photographer (weighing 80 pounds at his lowest point) would have to tear pages out to lighten the load of the book, but he never gave it up. After his and his family’s miraculous escape to the United States with the help of a few powerful friends, the sharp-eyed survivor took up the camera. A mere six years later he had a photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
As a photojournalist, Kalischer has not had one specific area of focus; rather, he photographed people from celebrities and other artists to children playing on the docks to refugees or the Southern rural poor. The artist, who began photographic schooling in 1944 at Cooper Union and then at The New School, photographed his way up from a copy boy with a borrowed camera into choice assignments from the New York Times, Life, and other leading publications. Quiet and unassuming, Kalischer said he tried to be “invisible and non-threatening,” waiting until subjects are comfortable enough to be around him so that he can capture a genuine atmosphere – often only of “ordinary people whose essential humanity he had caught at one decisive moment.”
Despite the trials of his youth and the struggles he photographed, Kalischer has retained an unbridled optimism that shows through in his work. In his two decade-long (1946-1966) series documenting artists who teach, the photographer traveled to Black Mountain College to document the school’s prominent teacher/artists in their native environment. One such image, Black Mountain College 1948, Ruse of the Medusa by Satie (entitled Merce Cunningham Teaching at Black Mountain College in the Black Mountain College collection) shows Cunningham – one of the most influential American Modern dancers and choreographers – seemingly teaching a theater class or preparing for a production. This beautifully-toned image highlights (literally) the important connection between students and teacher. Cunningham – directing from the shadows – appears to be helping the two actors center stage, and Kalischer photographs the moment that it appears that the actors finally understand what they are supposed to be doing, as evidenced by the old man’s grin and the younger woman’s focused small smile. Photojournalism typically relies on emotion rather than technical quality in an image, but the photographer’s use of existing light to highlight the two main players while placing Cunningham in the shadows shows his technical skill.
Though at 92, Kalischer stopped producing work, his photos continue to be reprinted today. Important to note is his optimism, both in each photo and in the overall subjects he photographs. For instance, choosing the create a 276 photograph collection solely of artists teaching their craft shows Kalischer’s knowledge of the importance of the arts. Even with the terrible experiences he endured through the War, he still finds it necessary to create beauty and continue passing on that idea and skill.
Artwork above: Clemons Kalischer, Black Mountain College 1948, Ruse of the Medusa by Satie ,1948, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 11.00 x 14 inches. Museum purchase with funds provided by 2007 Collectors’ Circle Member Rob Pulleyn. Permanent Collection. 2007.34.01.91.