Look at his heartfelt black-and-white photos of sheep farmers in the British Isles, and you know that Archie Lieberman was a kindred spirit to people who work the land.
Here is Anne Hendrie, tenderly feeding an orphaned lamb from a bottle. Stuart Hird tramping out with his trusty Border Collie. Stanley and Jeannie Sandison tending their flock on a treeless Shetland Isle. And maybe best of all, Old Mister Tidyman in his shirt, tie and dirty wellies turning his twinkling eyes to the camera, with a walking stick in one hand and a brindled baby lamb in the other. It was an image we used for our September 1985 catalog cover, still one of our favorites.
“Archie had a wonderful way about him,” says his wife Esther, who traveled to the British Isles with him. “He wasn’t a big, imposing figure, with a lot of assistants. It was just him and his camera. People warmed to him.”
He had an illustrious career as a photojournalist, working as a World War II combat photographer in the Pacific, then traveling the world for Life, Look and many other magazines, back in the glory days of editorial photography. But in the 1950’s, he got an assignment that changed the course of his career and his life.
“This Week Magazine sent him to a little farm in Scales Mound, Illinois,” says Esther. “ A high school girl named Janet Hammer had won a trip to New York City in a Singer sewing machine contest.”
Something about the Hammer family and the life they lived touched Archie, and he began photographing them every chance he got. The pictures turned into the notable book “Farm Boy,” published in 1974, which chronicled 20 years in the life of Janet’s brother Billy.
“Why did you let me intrude in your lives?” Archie once asked Janet’s mother Mildred. “It was your living, and we wouldn’t deprive you of it,” she answered.
In 1973, Archie talked Esther into moving from their home in Evanston to a 20-acre farm in Jo Daviess County that the Hammers helped them find. This was where the people lived that Archie wanted to photograph. It was where life made sense to him, as he wrote in the foreword to his book “Neighbors,” a successor to “Farm Boy:”
“In the morning the sun rises over the ridge and you truly know the day has begun. Roosters really crow, cows moo, pigs oink, church bells toll, and streams swish and gurgle. People work, pray and play. In the evening, the sun goes down over another ridge, and you know you have lived a sensible day.”
Not long after “Farm Boy” came out, Archie got a call from old Chicago acquaintance Gary Comer, who had recently moved his company Lands’ End from Chicago to Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Gary had made the move for much the same reason Archie had – he loved the character of the people who lived in this rolling farm country. They were honest, generous, industrious and good-hearted.
Gary wanted a photographer to capture the spirit of these employees – which was, after all, the spirit of Lands’ End – and who better than Archie? In the years that followed, he became a familiar figure at Lands’ End, strolling through the offices, the phone center, the warehouse, and visiting employees at their homes and farms too, shooting them as they went about their lives. A little booklet called “Out Our Way” told the story of the company through simple words and Archie’s memorable photos, and was included with the first order shipped to each new Lands’ End customer. The catalogs began featuring employee stories called In Person, with Archie’s photos. It was a revelation to our customers that many Lands’ End employees started their day with a 4 AM milking.
“It was always a pleasure when Archie was here,” says Sharon Kostuch of our Customer Service department, who was featured in an In Person article, and whose mother and niece Archie photographed for a Christmas catalog. “I remember telling him I didn’t like to see myself in a picture. He said a person never thought they took a good picture until they looked at it 10 years later. He had a point.”
“Archie had a way off making you feel very special,” says Joan Conlin, another In Person subject, “even though I thought my life was pretty uneventful. He used his wit and warmth to capture some of the most beautiful pictures.”
Between his regular visits to Dodgeville, Archie traveled to the British Isles for Lands’ End on more than one occasion, to India for a Madras story, and back and forth across the United States, photographing cotton growers and mill workers, sheep farmers and wool spinners, all the people who worked so hard to make the sweaters and shirts and jeans the company sold. On every assignment, his camera got under the surface of the story and into the soul of the people he photographed.
His dedication to his craft was legendary. We remember a trip we took with Archie to visit Larry Hancock, a cotton grower in California’s Parker Valley, near the Arizona border. “It takes 13 months a year to grow a crop of cotton,” Larry told us. Archie had some kind of a bug that day – or maybe just a reaction to the previous night’s truckstop dinner – and as we bumped over fields in Larry’s truck, his face got greener and greener. “Gotta stop,” he’d say, getting out to double over and heave into the furrows. He did this once, twice, three times. But never stopped taking pictures. On the flight that night from Phoenix back to Chicago, as the color began returning to his face, he turned and said, “We made some great pictures today, didn’t we?”
He did indeed, that day and so many others, for which we are eternally grateful.