NEIL LIBBERT has been a working photographer for more than 50 years. His name is not widely recognised outside the rarefied world of influential lensmen and his exhibitions are few and far between – a factor not unconnected with his reclusive nature and dislike of commercial pressures to perform.
The Art Bermondsey Project Space is privileged to be the platform for a long overdue revision of this esteemed ‘photographer’s photographer’ presenting Unseen Portraits 1958-1998.
Although in recent years Libbert has appeared at auction and in secondary market sales alongside his contemporaries (like Callahan, Meyerowitz and Penn) his images have the presence and authority of the previous generation: artists like Brandt, Doisneau and Lee Miller.
Neil Libbert was born in the industrial North – in Manchester in 1938 – in the Salford of LS Lowry. He studied art in Manchester, opening his own photographic studio as a young man before moving on to work as a press photographer, first at the Manchester Guardian and then in London for the London version. He subsequently joined the meteor that was the Sunday Times, a newspaper that would become a beacon for photojournalism under Harry Evans, and contributed to The New York Times as a contract photographer. His association with the national press lasted for over 45 years and until recently he documented the performing arts for the Observer.
Libbert has an interesting split personality as a photographer. On the one hand his genial, reserved and diffident nature is ideal for combatting the bombastic and egocentric stars of politics and the arts. This has resulted in a catalogue of outstanding portraits that range from Winston Churchill and Francis Bacon to Edna O’Brien and Bob Dylan. On the other hand he has built a solid reputation as a reportage and ‘street’ photographer, a genre that requires tenacity, energy and not a little courage. Here his collections contain award-winning shots captured in New York and London (studies in Harlem in the 1960s and the Brixton Riots in 1981) and he received the World Press Photo Award for exclusive studies made in the aftermath of the bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, London.
The last substantial solo show of Neil Libbert’s portraits was staged over 20 years ago.
Edna O’Brien Dublin, 1980 (left) James Baldwin London, 1964 (right)