Whitehot Magazine

Hope within Walking Distance: Adversity and the Sublime in Charlie Lieberman's Photography

Charlie Lieberman, Paramount Ranch, CA, 2020



Charlie Lieberman's favorite time to take photographs is when the early morning fog fills in the gaps between the oak trees in the western Santa Monica Mountains near his neighborhood. Every morning he takes a walk inspired by the weather. If it is sunny, he will leave behind his camera. It is the mood and weight of weather that he enjoys, giving a dreamlike effect to his photographs. 

Lieberman has been shooting this series of photographs all within walking distance of his house during the stay-at-home order instituted by the state of California to stop the spread of COVID-19. Despite the reasons, he has sought to use this time to create joy. He sends a daily newsletter with a photograph, sometimes accompanied by birdsong, to a group of 100 friends in hopes of brightening their outlook. He offers his work with a manifesto explaining his work in this quarantine era, post-Woolsey fire. 

Charlie Lieberman, Mulholland Highway, CA 2020

"All the photographs I’ve shared these last few weeks have been shot in areas of my neighborhood that completely burned to the ground in the Woolsey Fire, Nov/2018. Before the fire, I’d been aiming my camera at overgrown, old brush that fully obscured the views. After the fire, all that was left was the dirt, the rocks, and scorched tree trunks. Now that we’re beginning the second post-fire spring, the continued rising from the ashes is lovely to behold, and the views are outstanding. The added bonus of the beautiful morning fogs makes for pictures that for me are serene, natural, beautiful, and most importantly, hopeful. My purpose isn’t to show forbidding pictures but to share quiet moments that take in what is still sublime. My goal is to bring a moment of peace and promise into your day."

Charlie Lieberman, Malibu Creek State Park, CA, 2020

Photography holds a vital role in the need for communication and connection. Lieberman makes a point to connect digitally with his audience at a time when we are seeking relief from isolation. Landscape photography has never held more importance for our virtual experiences of the outside world. Lieberman evokes real places with real experiences. “I want people to experience the sense of place and time, so they can almost feel as if they are standing there, and,” he says jokingly, “to show a part of nature that isn't trying to kill us.”  

Charlie Lieberman, Santa Monica Mountains, CA

Lieberman's journey as an artist began in Chicago, where he was first inspired to photograph his neighborhood as a young adult. He was inspired by the works of photographer Robert Frank's The Americans, a classic work of American road trip culture. Lieberman left his graduate program studying anthropology to become a photographer. He took a job at a local camera shop that gave him a discount on film and access to a darkroom. He worked six days a week and used Sunday to drive around and look for subjects. Eventually, he landed a photography job that allowed him to travel to India, New Guinea, and Thailand, taking photographs for anthropology textbooks. When he returned home, he hung his work at a local bar where they were seen by a local filmmaker who wanted to use his work in a documentary. For Lieberman seeing his photographs in film was a transformational moment. They came to life as moving images set to music, changing how he used his camera. He then started working as a cinematographer on commercials and independent films in Chicago, one of which went on to be the underground cult classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. 

Lieberman moved to Los Angeles in 1989 to pursue a career as a cinematographer, and he eventually spent 15 years working in dramatic television. He worked on critically acclaimed television shows like My So-Called Life, Heroes, and Joan of Arcadia. “My style was to be natural,” says Lieberman. “You shouldn’t be distracted by any fakeness. You have to believe, it has to have verisimilitude.” One of his great loves is teaching a course during the American Society of Cinematographers weeklong master class to help bring along the next generation of film creatives. 

Charlie Lieberman, Paramount Ranch, CA, 2020

Always a backpacker and hiker, the journey of the road trip and landscape photography inspired him to change directions and start taking landscape photographs in 2006. Since then he has traveled to Iceland, back to India, and taken road trips throughout the United States. Lieberman plans his trips around the seasons, planning for the greatest likelihood for rain. He uses windows and car windshields also as a lens through which to show beauty in the environment. His photos reveal how nature works as a subject because the elements are so present and susceptible to change. “I constantly move through the world,” says Lieberman, “to find the weather and composition and everything is perfect, or I stay in one place and let the weather come to me. I get as many good photos either way.”

Liebermamn’s eye is always evolving. “I still surprise myself by raising my own bar,” he says. “I see a picture and it scares me because I know I have to make the rest of the photos compete with that.” His website is the best way to see the breadth of his work, including the series created since the COVID-19 outbreak and Californian lockdown. 

As we develop a new normal during the worldwide pandemic that redefines our lives, art and creativity remain a constant that will help us balance out our days. Lieberman spent enough time outdoors for us all to enjoy and engage in, his landscapes acting as a refuge, a transport to a place outside and brimming with life. His work is always a way to move through a visceral world, one in which he refines his vision and creates an ideal place to be. 

For more, visit his website: http://www.charlie-lieberman.com/index.html. WM


Samantha Parker

Samantha Parker is a freelance writer living in Pasadena, CA.

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