Jerome Liebling, Young Girl, West St. Paul, Minnesota, 1956 

Jerome Liebling 

Young Girl, West St. Paul, Minnesota  

Gelatin silver print (25.7 × 25.7 cm) 

Gift. The Mishkin Gallery

This black and white photograph depicts a girl standing in front of a time-worn Coca-Cola billboard. The girl’s cautious facial expression and posture reveal her discomfort, shyness, and even a bit of fear under the lens. Her panic look is like an innocent lamb captivated in an urban area. The slightly messy hair and tattered are telling her story of living in poverty. 

Jerome Liebling was an American photographer, filmmaker, and teacher. He grew up in poverty in Brooklyn and knew well about the pain and strength of ordinary people. He inspired generations of students with his humanitarian vision expressed through the media of photography and film. Liebling’s images capture unguarded intimacy on both sides of the lens. He reveled in subjects and places where fortitude battled against decay. He once said, “My sympathies have always been with the everyday people; they are the center of my photography.” 

The following label was written by Elena Freije Urdaneta:

Jerome Leibling, born in 1924, was an American photographer, filmmaker and educator. Throughout his career, Lebilng’s work was focused on social critique and photographing the lives of everyday people, from slaughterhouse workers to urban children. He taught at the University of Minnesota and founded the Hampshire College Film, Photography and Video programs, where later he mentored documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. Permanent collections of his work are held at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and The J. Paul Getty Museum, among others.

In Young Girl by Leibling, we meet a young non-white girl, leaning against a Coca-Cola sign, staring directly back at us. Her eyes shine against the dark colors of the photograph. She twists her body away, eyes fixed, caught in a moment of fight-or-flight. She is well dressed in worn-down clothes: a patterned skirt tied in a bow with a collared blouse. Behind her, the scaffolding mirrors the patterns of her clothes against the grey sky beyond. Both represent stars and stripes. Once one can pull away from her gaze, the girl and the background begin to merge into each other, both marked by the roughness of circumstance. This roughness is typical of Leibling’s photographs and ethos. The girl is presumably Native American, and therefore subject to the harshest systems of White Supremacy and Colonialism still active in the United States. As she cowers, the structure behind her stands strong, almost protective. The Coca-Cola sign she leans on presents an interesting question. A symbol of American consumerism and economic strength, the sign is also worn. It holds her like a boxing ring holds a fighter between matches. It could also be an advertisement echoing images of women against logos.