Interview and transcript © 1996 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation and added supplemental biographic information.
Arthur Leipzig was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1918. After studying photography at the Photo League in 1942, he worked for four years as a staff photographer for the newspaper PM. In 1946, he did a short stint at International News Photos, then became a freelance photojournalist, traveling on assignments around the world. In the 1960s, he started a parallel career as a teacher at Long Island University. His honors and accolades are described in more detail at his professional web site.
He joined ASMP in 1951. During his career, he was several times elected to the Society’s Board of Governors, where he served on various committees and held a number of posts.
ASMP: Arthur, will you tell us something about your first experience with the ASMP?
Leipzig: I joined the ASMP in the late ’40s, I’m not sure exactly. I first heard about the ASMP from Bill Vandivert (bio). Bill went to the staff of Life, but his brother, who worked for INP [International News Photos], talked to me about it. I took over his brother’s job at INP after I left PM. And he invited me to a meeting, and I became interested. That was in ‘46, so I must have joined shortly after, in ‘47 or ‘48.
ASMP: Why did you join?
Leipzig: I joined because he explained to me the value and the benefits of being a member of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. It was his idea that we would gain so much by joining together, and, loosely, I felt the same thing. I didn’t have any concrete ideas at the time. I just felt that, in an organization, there was a chance to learn something about the field. A chance to learn about rates, about the various things, and that there was an opportunity — I didn’t know how real it was — but there was an opportunity for photographers, if they were organized, to do better with their business.
In the beginning, when I first came in, I didn’t say very much. I sat back and listened to some of the louder members who used to argue, very loudly, and it was a fascinating thing. Roy Stevens and I used to sit back and listen to the arguments between Phillipe [Halsmann], Ike Vern — Ike Vern was a very good arguer, and very loud — and Charlie and … Simpson [Kalisher] not so much in the beginning. But the Peskin brothers were incensed about the idea of establishing a $100-a-day minimum. They were freelance photographers, and one of them did a lot of sports. He was a very well-known name at the time, but I don’t remember it now. I guess I have “old-timer’s disease,” but fortunately not Alzheimer’s Disease.
Anyway, he was the one who carried the torch for not having minimums. His claim was that if we had a $100-a-day minimum, we’d kill the industry altogether and we would be out of work. And of course other people argued on the other side. I tended to be against the position that, by asking a decent wage, you were going to kill the industry. There were people working for $50 a day, there were people working for $25 a day. And I suspect there were people working for nothing just to get a credit line in someplace like Life, as if that was going to be the end-all for their careers.
I did a couple of things for Life, but I was not a regular for Life. I worked for Fortune, I worked for This Week, Sunday Times, Natural History, lots of companies. I worked for Texaco and I worked for AT&T , New York Tel, Ford Foundation, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society. I had a variety of clients. But I was aware of some of the things that were going on with the Life bargaining.
“What a romantic life!”
What fascinated me about the ASMP, when I first came into it, was how the secretary said to me, “What are you doing here?” Apparently, I didn’t seem as crazy as all the others who were in the ASMP.
ASMP: Why did you think they were crazy?
Leipzig: Well, photographers are crazy. Not in a bad sense; I’m not saying that they’re not likeable. It’s just that the kind of person who accepts the lifestyle of a freelance photographer has to be a little (or a lot) different than the rest of society. Somebody who can accept the fact that he doesn’t know today what his next job is going to be, or when he’s going to get his next check, how he’s going to pay his bills, how he’s going to support a family — and yet enjoy it, with all the hassles, with all the anxieties. And we had plenty of them.
I remember many a day in the early days of freelancing where we lived out on the Island and we collected bottles so that I could turn them in for enough money to get into the City to see a client, or to do an assignment. And I remember one year, I think it was ‘49 or maybe ‘50, in which we totaled up my gross income for the year, and it was $5,000. Everything was very uncertain then, but it was fun. It was exciting. You never knew when you were going where to do what. Which was good, in that it was fun to do things that were different all the time.
One day, I was in the city seeing clients, and then my wife got a call from Sev over at Fortune; he needed me in Kentucky that night to do a shoot. I arranged for a flight to Louisville at six o’clock, but it was now about 3:30. There was no time for me to get myself together and go home and get everything, so Mimi [Leipzig] packed my cameras in a bag and brought me a sandwich — no clothing — and I got on the flight. I bought what I needed while I was down there shooting. Well, it was exciting and it was fun, and it was full of problems. They were not the kind of problems that you didn’t enjoy doing; you did enjoy doing them. But the average person can’t tolerate that.
I used to have friends who would tell me, “Oh, you’re a lucky guy. What a romantic life!” One particular poker buddy of mine was having a long conversation with me, and I said, “I want to tell you that I enjoy what I do and I love it, but I want to explain what is involved.” And I explained to him about the problems and not knowing when you were going to get work, not knowing when you were going to get paid. Not knowing what you were going to do the next day. And he sat there, stunned, for a while, and he said, “I could never tolerate that. l have to know where I’m going to be tomorrow morning at nine o’clock, next week at nine o’clock. I have to know all those things, otherwise I’m very uncomfortable.” So you have to be a certain kind of crazy person who’s different than most of the people in our society.
ASMP: You once mentioned a friend of yours who tried to be a freelancer and couldn’t make a go of it.
Leipzig: When we moved to Levittown, there was a guy who had the house behind ours, and he had three or four young kids. If he was off for a day, he’d see me sitting around, going to have coffee at ten o’clock rather than working in an office. He thought that was nice! He liked that. He was a writer for Sweet’s catalog service, a very secure job, he had everything all set, and he was interested in photography. Finally one day, he bought some equipment and said, “I am going to be a freelance photographer-writer, and I am going to give it a year.” Well, in the course of the year, he did a couple of assignments, he sold something to Reader’s Digest and a couple of other places. But he did not make a living in that year. Fortunately, he was a very frugal guy who had saved his money very carefully, so he could survive the year with his family. But he had to take a job at the end of that year. It was just not for him.
“I read up on all the different jobs, starting with the A’s: archeology, anthropology.”
ASMP: How did you start as a photographer? Did you pick up a camera when you were a kid?
Leipzig: Well, I picked up a camera, but I don’t think I picked it up seriously. I used to play with it. I remember going to the drugstore to buy film and developer, which you got at the drugstore then, and I would follow the directions about developing the film without light. To me, that meant going down to the basement, where there was very little light leaking in from the outside. I would feed the roll of film by hand, and I’d see it start to get dark, and I never understood that. I wasn’t serious about photography; it was just amusing to me. I didn’t get into photography until much later.
ASMP: When did you sell your first picture? Wasn’t it while you were still a teenager?
Leipzig: No, because I didn’t start into photography until I was 23. When I was 23 years old, I had been working in the glass factory and had an injury that lost the use of my right hand for fourteen months. So I became convinced that I should not go back into the glass factory. I looked around for something else to do. And a friend suggested that I go to the Photo League because I could take classes cheaply, and I thought, “That’s a reasonable idea. Maybe I’ll learn to be a darkroom technician.” So I took a class with Sid Grossman, and after two weeks in the class, I thought, “That’s what I want to be.”
As a 12- or 13-year-old, I used to go to the library and read up on all the different kinds of jobs people could have, starting with the A’s: archeology, anthropology. I never got up to the P’s, so I never found out about photography. When I got out of school, I wandered around and worked at everything: truck driver, office manager, sales. And finally, two weeks in this course and I said, “That’s what I want to be. I’m going to be a photographer.” I was absolutely clear in my head that I was going to be a photographer.
A lot of people told me, “Not a good idea. This is a very unsure business and it’s very competitive, you’ll never make it.” I didn’t listen to them. Not because I was so confident, I don’t think, but because this is what I wanted to do.
“They put me on staff so they didn’t have to pay me for extra pictures.”
ASMP: What was your first job?
Leipzig: My first job was with the newspaper PM. I got hired there as an Assistant Photo Assignment Editor, which meant that I was a lackey. I had been working one-handed as a floorboy, making $27 a week, and PM offered me a job at $25. That was a decision I had to consider for a while, but not too long, and I took the job. I loved being around the photographers, and I loved PM, which was a great newspaper.
I also started to do my own photography and sell it to them. At first, it was one or two pictures a week, and then it was three or four pictures a week. And then it became so expensive for them to have me working on the desk and selling them pictures that they put me on the staff as a photographer.
ASMP: How much did they pay per picture, do you remember?
Leipzig: No, I don’t remember. But I know that I was coming down — instead of my $25 salary, I was pulling down closer to $75 or $100, depending on the week. They put me on staff at $40 a week, so then they didn’t have to pay me for extra pictures. But it was a good start. And I worked at PM with a lot of photographers who were very knowledgeable. Morris Engle was there, Morris Gordon was there. A photographer named Skippy Adelman, who later gave up photography, but he was quite good. Ray Platnick, Dan Kelleher, John De Biase. Weegee was always coming around. There were a lot of first-rate photographers. And I learned a great deal.
“Either pay the current rate, or ask for a donation.”
ASMP: When did you start selling pictures to the Museum of Modern Art?
Leipzig: I was part of New Faces. So I remember taking photographs up to Nancy Newhall, and she was very encouraging and she would buy occasional things. There was nothing from any of that that you could make a living at. At that time, they paid $15 a picture for their permanent collection, and in some cases $10.
When Steichen came in, he came up with this great idea that he would reduce this to $5, because in that way he could buy more. I said, “I would rather give it to you for nothing than sell it to you for $5. Either you pay us what the current rate is, or ask for a donation.”
Anyway, they bought some things, and they eventually exhibited them. I was in a couple of exhibits at MOMA: the 1946 New Faces, and in 1948 Photographs from the Museum Collection.
“That’s good, but can you write a check?”
I became a photographer in 1942 after we got married. We lived in a three-room apartment in Brooklyn, and the kids were weaned on developer. We’d pull down the shades in the kitchen, put the baby in a high chair, and develop film.
My mother and my uncles and so on had been very skeptical about me going into photography. (Not Mimi, my wife; she wasn’t skeptical.) My family said, “What kind of a living can anybody make from something like that?” They couldn’t believe that I could establish any kind of reputation and be somebody this way. I remember my mother coming down to the Museum of Modern Art for an exhibit and seeing my work on the walls. And I think that was the first time she was somewhat impressed. Before that, I remember an uncle by marriage, who did some painting. He was the one in the family who would understand my work. And I showed it to him one night and he had a couple of cute comments. One was, “Well, that’s all well and good, but can you write a check?”
“A lot of photographers are one-eyed.”
ASMP: The ASMP began to grow, and that’s how I met you. It was at the time of the accident.
Leipzig: The accident was when I was working for This Week, that was early ’50s.
I had just returned from eight days on a small fishing boat in the North Atlantic. It was a harrowing assignment. We were on a small fishing boat and there were three storms, severe ice, engine failure. A nearby ship sank! So when I got back, they gave me a safe assignment. I was asked to go to Erie, Pennsylvania, to do a story on backyard ice-skating. A simple procedure — you get some two-by-fours, you nail them together and you flood it, and then you had ice. The lumber yard shipped some very hard lumber. When I tried to nail them together, one of the nails popped into my eye and I lost the sight in my left eye.
Which, I discovered, was not uncommon among photographers. Not that they got nails in their eyes, but a lot of photographers are one-eyed. Many of them called me up to say they had only one eye. Mike Ehrenberg was one of the first. I was concerned about a couple of things. What would happen? Would I lose my sense of depth? I was really troubled by that, because I feared not being able to work as a photographer or drive a car.
Well, I discovered that you have a depth memory that’s good for most things — I could play ping-pong and other fast-reaction things — but not for everything. Within a year of the accident, the Singer Company sent me to Quebec. I had to climb up this very tall sign, about 70 feet above the building to take my pictures. As I started down, I reached with my foot to the next level, and I reached wrong. Fortunately, I grabbed part of the sign and held on. And that’s when I realized that, when going up and down, I didn’t have the same references as I had on a horizontal level. I’ve been very careful about climbing ever since, particularly going down.
“Even though I set a precedent, I don’t think it’s always valuable.”
ASMP: Do you want to tell us about the litigation and how the ASMP represented you?
Leipzig: I had two choices. I could claim the lumberyard was negligent, or that somebody was negligent. I didn’t really feel that anybody was negligent, but that would have been more lucrative. But if I made a claim for workman’s compensation, then I had to prove that, as a photographer, I was not an independent contractor, but I was working under the direction of This Week magazine. And fortunately for me, the editors of This Week, Bobby Ashley and Lee Jones, were very good. And they backed up my claim.
I remember John Morris was there too. At the end of the hearing, he came over and said, “Listen, Arthur, remind me. If I ever need enemies in the future, I should take them from This Week.”
ASMP: But the fact is, that established a precedent for freelance photographers. That was really very difficult.
Leipzig: Right, it did. It was considered a landmark case.
ASMP: But there were continuing problems, like Danny Weiner getting killed and not being able to file a claim. And before that, Ike getting injured. That whole business of who takes care of photographers was still very new.
Leipzig: Well, I think there is an element in here which you have to consider. Danny Weiner got killed on an assignment. If the lawyer for the family claims that he was working under the direction of the publication …
ASMP: It was Medical Tribune and Scope Weekly.
Leipzig: … then his family’s entitled to a settlement based on workman’s compensation, which is not a very big settlement. However, if there’s a claim of negligence on the part of the psychiatrist who was flying that plane, the family would get a lot more. So even though I did set a precedent, I don’t think it’s always valuable.
ASMP: And it’s valid in New York State only, too. Another problem is that nobody at the ASMP had a record of those hearings. The ASMP was very involved in it.
Leipzig: Yes they were. A lot of ASMP people would stop in. There was no shortage of people from the ASMP then. But that’s a long time ago.
“It was a real fellowship, and we cared.”
ASMP: But didn’t the ASMP help you replace your cameras?
Leipzig: I was using Canons at the time, and using my left eye to focus. When I switched to my right eye (because I’d lost the left eye), my nose would fog up the finder. And that was a real problem. And I remember going to a camera store to see if there were other cameras, and I discovered that Nikon operated differently, and I could use it with my right eye. And Charlotte Brooks, who is a really very sweet and very supportive person, called up Arthur Rothstein and made an arrangement for me to pick up my cameras at a very low cost to replace the Canons. That was part of an attitude that existed in the ASMP. I don’t know if it exists today, but it was part of an attitude in which people helped people all the time.
ASMP: That’s what Mimi and I have found. It was a very good, trustworthy group.
Michael Herren assured me that the attitude still exists, it’s just that the organization is so much larger that it’s harder to put it into effect. But I know that when everybody knew everybody in the ASMP, it was like a fellowship.
Leipzig: It was a real fellowship, and we cared. When I served on the ASMP Board as treasurer, my job was to collect the dues. And some people, like Eugene Smith, would get into trouble. And we cared about everybody. We didn’t want to throw them out; we didn’t want them to lose their hospitalization. And so we would make every effort to get the dues. And then if we couldn’t, then we’d go to the Board and say, “Look, this is what happened, he’s in trouble, he needs help.” And the money would come somehow or other to pay Smith’s dues and pay his hospitalization, and so he wouldn’t lose that.
ASMP: He wasn’t the only one.
Leipzig: Oh, no. We did it with other people. And then, the time that Smith got evicted from his house, I was called.
ASMP: Was it in Carmel, New York?
Leipzig: Up in Croton. He was evicted. It was raining. His books, his records were all out in the street in the rain. And I got called and so did Jay Maisel. I had a station wagon; Jay Maisel had a motorcycle. There isn’t a lot you can carry on a motorcycle.
ASMP: Nevertheless, he went up.
Leipzig: He went up there, and we lugged as much as we could of Gene’s books, until I thought my axles would break. And we took it down to my house, where I put it on the shelves. It wasn’t until two years later that I met Gene again, at some function. I said, “Gene, when are you going to come get your books?” And he said, “Oh, you have it!”
“And so you’re starting all over again. “
ASMP: The ASMP’s welfare fund, as I remember they used to call it, did a lot of good.
Leipzig: There was a lot of good things. Yes, that was right, they had a welfare fund and they would take care of members.
ASMP: It was like a Deacon’s Fund.
Leipzig: It was like a family argument, except there was another element to it, which was interesting. I also found that in academia when I was working there. You come to a committee meeting in academia, and you decide you’re going to change the curriculum. And you lay out all the arguments for changes and then finally you put a proposal up. Some people object to parts of it, you make compromises, and then there’s a vote and you approve. So you think that would be the end of it. You’re all set to report to the full faculty, and one guy comes back, “I don’t think so.” And so you’re starting all over again.
Well, this happened at the ASMP, to a degree, when we discussed the $100-a-day minimum. We would argue it out, and you would think we had it all settled. And you would come back to the next meeting and there would be someone arguing that we’re going to wreck the Society if we ask for $100 a day.
“All the white and the black photographers came together.”
Kay: It seemed to me that the Society had a liberal bent in some areas. I heard that Roy Stevens and you acted together when you heard that the Miami conference was going to be segregated.
Leipzig: Well, let me give Mimi full credit for that. I didn’t really think about it too much. Mimi thought about it.
ASMP: The thing that happened was that everybody got letters saying that the conference was going to be in Miami, and the black people were going to stay at this motel and the white people were going to stay at that one. And we were all talking about what a terrible thing this was. It was in 1956.
Leipzig: So I called up Roy, and we talked about it. Then I called up Morris Gordon, who was the organizer of it. And Morris got nearly hysterical. “You ‘re going to kill the whole photojournalism thing.” And nevertheless we pressed it, and the Board agreed, and they instructed Morris to make a representation. It was just one call, and the people down there said, “Sure,” and all the white and the black photographers came together. And I think that was beautiful.
ASMP: It was the first time that it happened like that. It was a very good accomplishment.
Leipzig: Yes, we felt that — but it was her instigation.
“A still photographer works alone in many ways.”
ASMP: What it really showed was, if you think an injustice is being done, sometimes it only requires a very simple protest. It doesn’t even require a lot of noise. Everybody else is waiting for that to be done. Ike told me in the beginning that he joined ASMP to make photography a profession and to protect the rights of photographers.
Leipzig: Well, Ike was telling you something that he had a clear, intellectual understanding of. I didn’t; I had a general feeling that it could be good for photographers. I didn’t think in terms of making us be professional.
But I did want to join a professional organization. I wanted an organization that I could get feedback from, I wanted an organization that I could support, that could do things for the industry. And so in a less clear way, maybe, I was doing the same thing.
ASMP: But several people have told us how much they appreciated being able to go, after meetings, to sit around in the Belmore Cafeteria or wherever and talk shop.
Leipzig: Yes, I know a lot of people did. I didn’t do much of that; I came home to my wife and children.
ASMP: A lot of the problem of being a freelance photographer is isolation.
Leipzig: Isolation, absolutely. You know, this is true of any artist, but it’s very true of photographers. A filmmaker works with lots and lots of people, has a whole crew, an organization, has input on 20 different levels. A still photographer, at least the kind that I was, works alone in many ways. And unless there’s some kind of connection with an organization, with other people who have like problems, you really are isolated.
My connection, instead of going to the Belmore Cafeteria, was to have lunch with a lot of the people, like Roy Stevens and Arthur Lavine and Martin Dain. We would meet when I was coming into the City for assignments or to see clients. And we would have lunch and we would talk about all these things. And I remember it was not uncommon to be with one of the photographers who was having a hard time, who hadn’t gotten any work in a long time, and I would suggest one of my clients as a possible person for him to see, and they would go. And I actually think it worked the other way, too. We helped each other out.
“I would see that I had picked up some baggage along the way.”
ASMP: Arthur, when did you join C.W. Post [a campus of Long Island University]?
Leipzig: I started to teach part-time at C.W. Post in 1963. At that time, I was doing fine as a freelance photographer, making a living and not having any trouble, and we were approached by a friend who was in the art department at Post — actually, Mimi was approached in the supermarket — and asked if I would like to teach. And the thought hadn’t really occurred to me, but then I said, “Well, I’ll give it a try.” And I went into the first class — I’ll never forget, it was a summer class — and I was terrified. I was terrified to stand in front of this group of teenage monsters and have to communicate to them. But after I got over my initial terror, I found that I was really enjoying it, getting a lot of pleasure. And so I evidently was doing a good job, and they knew about it, and they kept asking me to do more and more. And finally I worked out an arrangement where I could work during the year as a teacher if they knew that, when I got an assignment, I’d be able to take off. I could go where I had to go, and come back, and I would make up whatever I missed. And they accepted it, because they felt having somebody with a professional background like mine was valuable to the students. And so I taught classes during the fall and spring as well the summer. And then in ‘68 they asked me to go on full time. And from 1968 to 1995 I was director of photography.
ASMP: What about this chair?
Leipzig: That’s a university chair that you get after you’ve been there 15 years. You don’t have to be good.
ASMP: Listen, they gave you lots of credit. They had an ad that said, “A good teacher.”
Leipzig: Oh yes. I got lots of honors. I won two awards from the Trustees for scholarly achievement, one in 1983 and one in 1988. I also won the Good Teacher Newton Award in 1989. And I was featured in a lot of their ads.
I found that this exchange with the students was good for me. It wasn’t just simply that I was giving them what I knew and trying to make them into copies of me, but in the exchange, listening back and forth. I would often find myself expostulating an idea that a kid would challenge, and I would be starting to say, “What do you mean? What are you challenging? I told you so.” And then I’d say, “Well, wait a minute.” And I would think about it and say, “You know, I really don’t know why I took that position. Let me examine it and I’ll tell you tomorrow.” And I would go home and think about it, and I would see that I had picked up some baggage along the way, some garbage that wasn’t valid. And so I’d come back in the next day and say to the kid, “You’re right. I was wrong.” And it was good for me. So I enjoyed doing it. And then as I got into the teaching, I gave up some of the work that I’d been doing that was less interesting to me. With freelancing, you do all kinds of things just because you need the money. And so I began to do less and less of that, and more and more of the kind of photography that I liked to do.
“A lot of photography would be just as good or better in black-and-white.”
ASMP: What can you say about your new project?
Leipzig: I’m working on several projects. Right now, we have a proposal for a book on “New York in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s” up at Bullfinch Press; we’re waiting to hear from them. I think it’s a beautiful book and it’s something that surprised me when I went through my files to find out what I had in that period. I also have another book we put together for a general retrospective of 50 years of photography or more, and we’re showing that around, preparing a number of exhibits that are going to go on. And I am working on two shooting projects. One is on the role of mentors in the arts. I’ve worked on people like Pablo Casals, Alexander Schneider, Marcel Marceau, Pearl Premus, Jacques d’Amboise, and right now I’m working on Uta Hagen. I’m also doing a project — I haven’t done much lately, but I’m anxious to get started again — on violence in nature. That’s what I’m doing.
ASMP: So you’re still shooting. Do you prefer black-and-white to color?
Leipzig: Yes I do. I do color occasionally, and some things absolutely must be color. But I find that too much of color is done for the sake of nothing except because the assignments call for color, but it doesn’t really mean anything in color. For example, I’ve seen a lot of photography that would be just as good or better in black-and-white. Take the current exhibit at the Metropolitan of Helen Levitt, who is a beautiful photographer of great sensitivity. When you look at the black-and-white she did, it’s all there. If I look at the color, I say, “So what?” It’s not that meaningful.
“I was that far away from the third rail.”
ASMP: Did you start out with a big camera or a 35 millimeter? And do you remember what you were shooting with it?
Leipzig: I remember not having a camera and going to the Photo League and Sid Grossman saying, “Go buy a camera.” And I asked what kind of a camera? And he sort of explained to me what a twin-lens reflex was like. And I didn’t have a lot of money, because I was living on workman’s compensation of the State of Texas at the time, and that was $14.40 a week. So I went to Willoughby’s and I met this young woman who was selling, and she showed me this twin-lens reflex. Very clean look, very beautiful, used, and it was $25. She said, “Try it.” So I took it in my hand, I looked in, and I turned knobs, and nothing changed. And I said to her, “Aren’t you supposed to focus something?” And she said, “Oh, no, that’s no problem. Tell me, how far away do you think I am from you now?” I said five feet. She said, “That’s all, you set it at five feet.” So I bought the camera for $25, came back to Sid, showed it to him, and he said, “God, you were taken. Come with me.” And he took me back to Willoughby’s and we returned it. And then we went down the street looking for cameras, and we finally wound up in Penn Camera, where they had a 9x12 Zeiss Ikon plate camera for $39.50! And I couldn’t afford it. But I bought it, and I used it.
It was very tricky, because you had none of the automatic things you have now. Every time you wanted to focus, you had to open up the back, look through the ground glass, cock your shutter after that, put your plate in, pull out the slide, shoot, and then put the slide back in. That was the first camera I used before I became a staff photographer. For the staff photographers at PM, they gave out cameras. I had a Speed Graphic, I had Rolleiflexes, I had everything that they had, including I remember a Graflex with a ten-inch Ross London lens that I used wonderfully in a department store window photographing kids. Anything you needed, they had it.
I remember covering a hurricane in New York in 1944. And I went out in the hurricane — the streets were full of water — and after a couple of hours in the rain and the water and the wind, the camera stopped working. I brought it back in; they gave me another camera; I dried off; I went out again. I went through three cameras that day, and when I went out with the fourth camera, that was the last.
ASMP: Did you get any pictures?
Leipzig: I got my pictures, kids swimming in the streets. And the last assignment was a scary one.
There was a Long Island railroad train that was derailed out at Hunters Point or one of those places in Queens. And I got a cab to take me out there, paid him a bonus because he didn’t want to go. I got there exhausted. This was around midnight; I’d been going out in that hurricane all day long. And when I first approached the yard, one of the guys stopped me. “You can’t come here.” I said, “I’m press,” showed him my police card, and he said okay. I walked down a little further, another guy stopped me. And I explained the same thing to him, and he said okay. And I’m getting very annoyed. I’m really tired, I’m exhausted and I’m shooting my pictures, and I start to back up for an overall, when the first guy, the foreman, yells at me, “Hey you!” And I’m ready to give him an argument. “What are you bothering me for?” And he points behind me, and he yells, “Death! Death! Death!” I looked back, and I was that far away from the third rail. I walked away from it calmly, came back to the office, developed my film, went home to Brooklyn, undressed, got into bed. As my head hit the pillow, I broke into a cold sweat and got the shakes.
“Every week we see 10, 20 young photographers.”
ASMP: We should talk about the difference in the way photographers work now and the way that they used to, how things have changed over the last 50 years. I don’t know if you have some comments; it’s not a simple question.
Leipzig: No, it’s not a simple question. I’ll tell you, when I was actively teaching and I would send students out to start to make a living, I would get back a couple of things almost universally from every student — young, old, male, female — and it would go something like this: “Arthur, it’s not like it used to be when you were out there.” And in some sense they were right, but in the basic sense, they weren’t.
The differences were something like this. When I called up an art director or a picture editor in the ’40s or ’50s or ’60s, I practically never got turned down. “Yes, when would you like to come up? Make an appointment.” But for a young photographer today, to call up an art director and be told to leave his work and to come pick it up on another day, has got to be one of the hardest things to do. Because the feedback is important. I didn’t know this consciously when I started out, but every time I went to see a potential client, I learned something. When I became aware of this, I would go somewhere after I would leave each office, sit down and have a cup of coffee, and write down all the things that happened during that interview, so I could learn from the experience.
I learned what kind of approach to make to people. I learned how to talk to them. I learned what to show, how to behave when you showed it, and so on. And it was very helpful. If you don’t have that, it’s very tough.
And I think, for young photographers, there’s less opportunity for the big-time than there was, because they find it more difficult to break through. The art directors who know the well-known photographers probably stay with them more often. Bobby Ashley once told me when I was at This Week that she liked my work — obviously she did; I was doing an average two or three assignments a week — but she said, “Try not coming around sometimes for a few weeks.” And what she meant was that we needed that communication. And those young photographers don’t get that communication at all. She said, “You know how many young photographers we get to see these days? Every week we see 10, 20 young photographers.”
ASMP: That many?
Leipzig: That many. She says some of them are good, and someday if you’re not around and something comes up, we’ll call one of them. But they don’t get that today. It’s very difficult.
What other differences? Of course the technical stuff. We’re dealing with a lot more electronics. Some of it I don’t like, some of it’s okay. We’re dealing with a lot more expensive equipment, which is also hard on the young photographer. But that’s where an organization like ASMP becomes even more important, if it’s letting the young photographers hang around with the older pros and getting the feedback from them that they can’t get from the editors. I think it’s valuable.
I’m dead set against charging members to come to a meeting. To me, that’s horrifying. If you’re a non-member, you want to come, sure. If there’s something special and you want to charge them, great. For membership, sure, you have to pay. I think young people who are trying to get started have a tough road, very tough.
“The arguments about the Code seemed to go on forever.”
ASMP: Did you have a feeling that the ASMP improved your day rates? Or were you always getting enough?
Leipzig: Oh, no; they made a difference. The day rate made a difference. For example, I had been doing work for a number of clients for $75 a day, which was considered good at that time, the middle ’40s. As soon as the ASMP set the $100 a day rate, I remember going to a lot of these editors and saying, “Well, you know the new rate is $100.” And I was astonished; they said, “Yes, we know.” And I didn’t have to sell it; I didn’t have to argue it; I didn’t have to fight it; I didn’t lose anything. They said “Yes, we know.”
ASMP: So you didn’t lose business.
Leipzig: I didn’t lose business, and right away my rate went up to $100 a day. The problem became that the minimum became the maximum, after a while. And that was unfortunate.
ASMP: The Roy Stevens experience at Time was special.
Leipzig: That was different. Time/Life were sons of bitches.
ASMP: They dropped him and some other people because of the Code.
Leipzig: That’s right. People like him stood up, and they were really honorable people. It wasn’t that problem for me. I remember I’d been doing work at that time for Singer, for the American Cancer Society, for the Times, for Newsweek, and they all went up. Plus the page rate, In the case of This Week.
ASMP: Did you ever go to a negotiating meeting with the ASMP to meet with a publisher or an editor?
Leipzig: I don’t remember ever doing that.
ASMP: But you remember arguing about the Code?
Leipzig: Oh yes. Oh, the arguments about the Code seemed to go on forever, and louder and louder and louder.
ASMP: What I remember, when I met you all in the spring of 1955, was terrible fighting, amd people blaming other people for taking jobs below the minimum.
Leipzig: Yes, I’m sure there was some of that.
ASMP: The amazing is that enough people stood up.
Leipzig: Hy Peskin was vitriolic about the day rate and said it was going to kill the ASMP for sure.
ASMP: Yes, he felt that photographers were artists and they shouldn’t have a union.
Leipzig: Right. He’d say, I get $150 or $200 a day. Well great, you get that, fine, I’m delighted you get that. But let’s have a minimum.
ASMP: It was a difficult thing, because it was not until 1958 that Life agreed officially that they would go along with it.
Leipzig: We didn’t have that same problem with Fortune. It was interesting that Fortune didn’t play those games. They were paying us $125 a day to start with, and there was not an argument. It was not a discussion; they said, “This is what we’re paying.”
ASMP: And giving your negs back?
Leipzig: Yes, I got them all back. No arguments, not at Fortune.
ASMP: Thank you very much.
Arthur Leipzig is the author of two hardcover books, Sarah’s Daughters (1988) and Growing Up in New York (1996). They are described at Leipzig’s web site. He also authored Arthur Leipzig: Photographs of Jewish Life Around the World, the catalog for a 1982 exhibition at the Nassau County Museum of Fine Art.
Sarah’s Daughters: A Celebration of Jewish Women, published by Women’s American ORT in 1988, is out of print, but it is often available from used-book dealers for $15-$75, depending on condition.
Growing Up in New York, published by David R Godine, is still widely available; Barnes&Noble.com charges $40 for a new copy; used-book merchants are asking $10-$20.