Clemens Kalischer captures half a century of change on film

At the Old Bennington Weavers textile mill, looms hold fabrics for an artist and fashion designer, Tzaims Luksus, known for his graphics on silk. In Brattleboro, artisans at the family-run Anderson Pipe Organ Company are shaping pipes by hand from sheet metal.

Crafters go about their work and grey-haired men lean on their snow shovels. Students lean over their desks or their instruments. They look candidly and naturally out of  black and white photographs with a quiet humor, a sense of family closeness, a sense of skill and knowledge, and even a sense of loss.

They are New Englanders in Between Past and Future: Clemens Kalischer’s Vermont, an exhibit at the Bennington Museum through Oct. 1 (2017).

As a photographer and photojournalist, Clemens Kalischer has traveled the country and world — on assignment for The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Yankee Magazine, the Boston Globe, Ploughshares, Orion Magazine and many others, and on his own for the love of it.

At 96, he still lives in Stockbridge, and his daughters, Tanya and Cornelia Kalischer, spoke of him and his work, surrounded by his prints at his Image Gallery on the main street.

Clemens Kalischer’s Vermont

Clemens had begun taking photographs in Vermont on his own as early as 1947, Cornelia said. He felt drawn to its small towns by a sense of political, intellectual and community there. He liked the mills and farms, and town centers with locally owned businesses.

Tanya worked with her father’s assistant, Kate Coulehan, and Bennington Museum’s executive director Robert Wolterstorff to curate the Vermont show. They looked through a vast collection of vintage prints, said Bennington Museum curator Jamie Franklin, who shaped the exhibit as he set the prints on the walls — Clemens has always made his own silver gelatin prints from his own negatives.

In the 1950s to 1970s, he was exploring Vermont at an interesting moment, Franklin said. It was a time of change, as traditional ways of life met contemporary influences — dairy farms and Modern architecture, progressive activism and a growing cultural community.

Clemens knew that community from the inside, Franklin said, and he seemed drawn to cultural life with roots here. Rather than an artist like Helen Frankenthaler, who graduated from Bennington College and joined the avant garde in New York City, in this show Clemens has caught two boys playing a piano duet at the Marlboro Music Festival — James Levine and Van Cliburn.

One would grow up to be the director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and one an internationally known pianist, but here they sit side by side on a piano bench on a summer afternoon, quietly concentrating on the music they are playing.

Clemens came north on regular assignments for Vermont Life from 1956 to 1988, Tanya said, and he has taken many trips on his own. She and Cornelia have gone back with him in recent years.

“It’s his homeland,” she said.

The Green Mountains felt close to places he had known as a child in Europe, Cornelia said, in the sensibility and the landscape, and in the way he felt as he explored the back roads, talking with people.

An adventurer all his life

Kalischer was born in Lindau, Germany, on Lake Constance. His family moved to Berlin when he was 9, and there they lived in the Weisse Stadt (white city), a neighborhood of 1920s Modernist apartment buildings he talked about warmly later.

In 1933, when he was 12, his family fled Germany to escape the rising Nazi government. They left so suddenly and secretly, Tanya said, that Clemens could not tell his friends or say goodbye to them. He and his family came to Paris as émigrés, and they were struggling at first. The family did not have enough to eat, she said, and Clemens lived for awhile apart from them in Basel, Switzerland. And near the house where he was staying he could hear the young pianist Rudolf Serkin playing music, practicing, with violinist Adolph Busch. They would become internationally known musicians, and they had also just left Germany to escape the Nazis.

Decades later, Serkin and Busch founded the Marlboro Music Festival at Marlboro College in Vermont; Clemens would photograph Serkin there and return to the festival over many years, and he and Serkin would become close friends.

But in France, Clemens and his family had not yet escaped danger. In 1939 Clemens was biking in the countryside with a friend, when they saw posters telling foreign nationals to report to the nearby town hall.

He did, and he was taken prisoner. He had no way to contact his family, and this suddenly, without warning, he was sent to a work camp on his own. He spent three years in eight different work camps — French camps, because he was German, and France and Germany were at war.

He was forced into different kinds of heavy labor, Tanya and Cornelia said, including time in a factory where the laborers were on their feet 16 to 18 hours a day. Exhausted, he finally refused to work, and others joined him. They were going to be court-martialed, Tanya said, but under the threat of enemy planes he and his fellow workers were evacuated to Albis in Southern France.

Here in the south, under the fascist Vichy government, he was marked as Jew. But here, finally, he ended up in the same camp as his father.

They were working long hours with little to eat, Tanya said. When his family reunited and left the country with the help of friends, he weighed only 88 pounds.

A fascination with photography

He was 21, in 1942, when his family came to New York. He spoke French and German but no English, and once again he and his family had to find their way in a new country. He got a job working at Macy’s to support himself day-to-day.

He was not a photographer then. But he carried a book that had survived with him all the way from Paris — images of the city by the Hungarian photographer André Kertesz’ “Paris Vu Par.” In New York a fire mostly destroyed it, Cornelia said; not long ago she found a copy for him for his 90th birthday.

Chance encounters encouraged his interest, and he followed it to courses with the Photo League, where he could use the dark room. He learned from other students and enthusiasts — he studied at Cooper Union, and in an interview in Hatje Cantz’ book, “Clemens Kalischer,” Clemens recalled 30 or 40 students gathering at a coffee shop after a class at the New School to talk about their work.

But often, Clemens learned by himself. He met many well-known photographers in those years, from Berenice Abbott and Ansel Adams to Edward Steichen, who chose one of his images for the exhibit and book The Family of Man at the Modern Museum of Art. Beaumont Newhall, the first photo curator at the MoMA, also included Clemens in a large photography exhibit there.

Clemens worked his way to early assignments at the France Press Agency and later established a decades-long relationship with the New York Times. Often a photograph of his would draw attention from a photographer or an editor, and he began to build a freelance career out of doing his own work, out of love and fascination and a need to see clearly.

He would wander through the city, Tanya and Cornelia said, photographing longshoremen unloading grain sacks, a young shoeshine boy, or children playing and arguing on the sidewalks.

In 1947 and 1948 he created a series, some of his best-known work, among immigrants coming from Europe after the war. In one, two girls are talking by a stack of trunks. In another, an elderly man and woman stand close to each other, his arm around her shoulders as he gestures toward the dock. Clemens was trying to understand his own immigration through them, he told Cornelia years later. He was drawn to keep coming back to the wharf.

One day as he stood there, he quietly photographed another man with a camera — an international figure, the photographer and photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson.

They spoke in New York, and more than 50 years later they met again in Paris, Tanya and Cornelia said. Their father admired Cartier-Bresson, who wrote of his own work with the kind of intuition and spontaneity Clemens would become known for.

Both felt a photographer should blend into the scene to capture people in motion and strong moments of feeling. Cartier-Bresson said (cited online by La Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson): Photography puts the head, the eye and the heart on the same line of sight.

Coming to New England

In 1951, Clemens left New York for Stockbridge, where he has lived now for more than 60 years. He wanted to live in the country, Tanya and Cornelia said, but close enough to New York and Boston to keep in touch.

He had begun traveling to Vermont already for assignments and for his own work. His daughters sometimes came with him, and they remember the time he would spend on his photographs. Marlboro Music Festival was founded in the same year, bringing young music students and well-known musicians together at Marlboro College, and he might spend a week there, becoming part of the scene. He would see the musicians playing together casually or sitting one-on-one with their instructors, getting into food fights in the dining halls and practicing in the grounds.

In Vermont he would wander too, and he would get to know people and let them become familiar with him.

“He created lifetime friendships with people he photographed,” Tanya said.

He might travel with a camper and park it on side roads, or he might stay with a local family, as he stayed with Sue Stanley and her family on their dairy farm when Vermont Life ran a feature on “a farm wife.”

He had an affinity for cows and a deep respect for farm life, Cornelia said. Later he helped to develop the model for Indian Line Farm in Sheffield, one of the first CSA farms in the country.

The Bennington show focuses mainly on freelance work, but Clemens photographed many projects of his own, because he loved them. He would follow an idea the way he might follow a back road just to see where it led, Tanya said.

In the Cantz book, Clemens says that he always photographed for himself, and sometimes an assignment came out of it: “The things that I do for myself usually come out best, and they end up being used sometime.” The greatest force in his life, he says, has been to remain independent.

His daughters agreed.

“He has been an explorer his whole life,” Tanya said.

“An adventurer,” Cornelia agreed.

“And he has never taken a day off,” Tanya said.

He was always working and always passionate. As children they remember watching him as he spent hours every evening in his darkroom, developing prints. He might make more than a dozen prints of a single image.

“It was part of his art,” Tanya said. “The process of how he printed is second to none.”

He was careful, Cornelia said, and meticulous about light and shadow, clarity and brightness and contrast.

They remember him talking with editors and looking over images. Freelance assignments might take him to Europe, to India or Israel. In the Berkshires he might meet blues, jazz and gospel greats like John Lee Hooker and Mahalia Jackson at the Music Inn in Lenox or classical musicians at Tanglewood.

“As much as he loved classical music,” Cornelia said, “he loved contemporary music — at Tanglewood he went to every concert in the contemporary music festival. I brought him last year, and I’ll bring him again this summer.”

She remembers watching him in the catwalk in the Shed as he pointed his lens at the musicians from above, and Tanya remembers coming with him to dance performances and concerts and meet visiting artists and performers.

He met artists and performers through Vermont too. Between Past and Present draws work from the Flaherty Film Seminar in 1956, a newly built Modernist dorm at Bennington College in 1968 and a series of photos on the town of Peacham, Vt. A dragon’s head in a station wagon comes from Bread and Puppet, Franklin said — a group of performers founded in the early 1960s by the German sculptor, dancer and baker Peter Schumann, who brought together sourdough loaves and theater with an activist bent, feeding the mind and the body together.

A sense of activism

As he valued the communities he visited in Vermont, Clemens stayed involved in his own community, Tanya and Cornelia said. In Stockbridge he worked with the Laurel Hill Society and with environmental and agricultural concerns, with the Millay artists colony, education and the arts.

For some years he taught photography at Berkshire community College and at Williams College with the independence and improvisation he put into his own work.

In 1965 he started the Image gallery in Stockbridge to help and promote emerging artists. He showed contemporary work by many artists who have since become well-known, including Berkshire sculptor Joe Wheaton; Jarvis Rockwell, son of Norman Rockwell; and abstract painter Pat Adams, who had a show of work at the Bennington Museum in June.

His gallery still lives in the brick building of the 1884 old town hall. He loved Modern architecture, his daughters said, New England barns and old mill buildings, doorways around the world. He came back often to the crux between traditional and new — he was often drawn to Italy, Cornelia said; she went with him later in his life, and

she could see why. They would see old architecture with modern glass within it.

“They take care of their buildings,” he told her.

He took landscapes and played with color and abstraction, Tanya and Cornelia said. But over and again they come back, as he has done, to people. Men, women and children move dynamically in his images, part of a game or an embrace or a moment of holding on.

“You feel as though you’re right there with them,” Cornelia said.

Clemens also became a member of One By One, an international organization that describes itself as a meeting place for “the descendants of those who endured and survived the atrocities of the Nazi Regime … (and) the descendants of the perpetrators and bystanders from one of the most evil chapters in human history.”

One by One reconnected him to Germany, Tanya said. He returned several times to talk with children about current conflicts, not to dwell on the past but to look through his own experience into the present.

Up to now

Today, at 96, he rides in a car with his daughters on the back roads with an unobtrusive camera, and he comes into his Stockbridge gallery several days a week. The gallery shows his own work now, and has for the past six or seven years, and he or a member of the family is there regularly to welcome visitors. The moments of life he has gathered over the last 60 or 70 years fill the walls and overflow — tobacco farmers are playing the fiddle in the rural South. On a European street, a small girl is running past an open doorway. She is caught in action in the frame. Clemens loves this picture.

He would agree with Cartier-Bresson that seizing an image is a grand physical and intellectual joy.

“Working was not working, for him,” Cornelia said.

She paused and added, as Henri Cartier-Bresson has also said — photography is a way of life.


This story first ran in the Hill Country Observer in July; my thanks to editor Fred Daley. ‘Between Past and Future: Clemens Kalischer’s Vermont’ is running through Oct. 1 at the Bennington Museum at 75 Main St., Route 9, Bennington, Vt. 

The Image Gallery at 34 Main St., Stockbridge is open daily, but it is best to call ahead for an appointment, 413-298-5500, or email  The gallery is launching a website at (The photo at the top of the historic building that houses the gallery is by Kate Abbott.)

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