The Center for Creative Photography is saddened to share the news of the passing of photographer, photo editor, and educator Joan Liftin on January 15, 2023. She was 89.
In 2017, her archive was acquired by the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It resides alongside her late husband’s, photographer Charles Harbutt, and other important American photographers including Ansel Adams, W. Eugene Smith, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Edward Weston, Louise Dahl Wolfe, and Garry Winogrand.
“Liftin’s poignant work regularly appears in our exhibitions, including one opening at the Phoenix Art Museum this March. The photographs are simultaneously direct and emotionally nuanced – an unusual pairing of characteristics to find in documentary pictures,” said Rebecca Senf, Chief Curator at the CCP. “Her archive will provide a legacy of her contributions to the field, both to audiences and researchers, for decades to come.”
Liftin was born in Teaneck, New Jersey, in 1935 and grew up in New York City. She studied modern dance before pursuing a degree in journalism at Ohio State University (BA 1957). Liftin danced with the Ann Halprin, Welland Lathrop, and Jose Limon companies until 1971. She was a photo editor at the United Nations from 1971-1975, during which time she also photographed assignments for UNICEF in Haiti, Peru, Chile, Algeria, and Iran. In 1975 Liftin joined the staff of Magnum, serving as Director of the Magnum Photo Library until 1980. In 1978, she married fellow photographer Charles Harbutt.
Liftin’s photographic voice gained strength during her time at Magnum in the late 1970s. She directed the International Center for Photography’s Documentary and Journalism program from 1989-2001. Liftin published three books: Drive-Ins (2004), Marseille (2015), and Water for Tears (2018), and edited Mary Ellen Mark’s Falkland Road, Charles Harbutt’s Departures and Arrivals, and Andrea Stern’s Inheritance. Her work is in the Center for Creative Photography collections, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Princeton University.
“Although those facts describe her accomplishments, they say too little about the determined, funny, passionate, generous, and empathetic person Joan was,” said Rebecca Senf, CCP’s chief curator. “As with many of the artists I have had the pleasure of working with, Joan was not just a colleague but a friend. I will miss her greatly, and the Center’s staff want to send her friends and family our condolences. It is important, however, in this moment of grief to also offer gratitude for the work she created that will continue to enrich the world.”
Family Obituary for Joan Liftin
NEW YORK, NY: Joan Liftin, photographer and noted educator and photo editor, died on January 15, 2023, at her home in Manhattan. A native New Yorker, she was 89 years old and had battled cancer for three years.
Liftin, whose photography career began in 1971 as the photo editor and staff photographer at UNICEF, taught and practiced photography and photo editing as emotional narrative, where meaning came as much from feeling as from story. Her lyrical images and sequencing speak to the sometimes brooding, but always incandescent, aura of everyday life. She approached the physical world and human experience not as inquiry but with tough and tender acceptance—unusual in the realm of documentary expression. MacArthur Fellow, poet, and friend to Liftin, Eleanor Wilner said, “In my view, her photographs, like Joan herself, valued attachments; they made palpable the deep emotional and lived connections between people––catching comfortable intimacy, exuberant life, playful humor, shared joy, the deep ties among us made visible with a gesture, an expression, an image that caught the essence of a shared occasion.”
Some of her most recognized project subjects are American drive-in movie theaters, 21st century life in the French city of Marseille, and her early work chronicling American Jewish experience. This last was used in the 1978 Claudia Weill film Girlfriends starring Melanie Mayron who played a struggling young art photographer in New York City. The photographs of Joan Liftin represented the character’s own work, seen on the walls of the fictional counterpart’s apartment and art gallery exhibition.
Liftin published three monographs: Drive-Ins (2004), Marseille (2015), and the pictorial memoir Water for Tears(2018). In 2017, her archive was acquired by the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It resides alongside her late husband’s, photographer Charles Harbutt, and other important American photographers including Ansel Adams, W. Eugene Smith, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Edward Weston, Louise Dahl Wolfe, and Garry Winogrand. Rebecca Senf, Chief Curator at the CCP said, “Liftin’s poignant work regularly appears in our exhibitions, including one opening at the Phoenix Art Museum this March. The photographs are simultaneously direct and emotionally nuanced – an unusual pairing of characteristics to find in documentary pictures. Her archive will provide a legacy of her contributions to the field, both to audiences and researchers, for decades to come.”
Her photographs are also in the permanent collections of the Akron Art Museum, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Princeton University Art Museum, among others.
Liftin found her way to photography from modern dance and journalism, both of which she studied at The Ohio State University in the 1950s. Liftin worked as a modern dancer after graduation and taught dance at Pembroke College, the women’s school attached to Brown University. Fluent in French, from 1958 to l960 she lived in Paris while working at the Fulbright Commission. Liftin married architect Saul Wolf in 1960, the marriage lasting two years.
She continued as a modern dancer and teacher until l967, telling The New York Times in 2016 that “One of the choreographers I studied with was Doris Humphrey, one of the greats. She advised her students that what was important was the feeling and form of a dance. It was an emotional, visceral medium and didn’t tell stories, but should be designed to arouse physical and emotional empathy from its audience. I felt the same way about photography.”
An important chapter of Liftin’s life in photography began in 1975 when she was appointed Library Director of Magnum Photos, the world’s most prestigious photo agency and cooperative of photographers. She started to photograph seriously and in 1976 she was one of eight American women included in a USIA exhibit touring Europe. That same year, she registered for a photography class with Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson who was unexpectedly replaced by fellow Magnum member, Charles Harbutt. Liftin and Harbutt later reconnected in New York City; they were married from 1978 until his death in 2015.
Together with photographers Mark Godfrey, Abigail Heyman, and Mary Ellen Mark, Harbutt and Liftin left Magnum to found Archive Pictures in 1981, a rethinking of the cooperative concept that sought to integrate artistic freedom and commercial necessity. Liftin told Photo District News in 1986: “Of course, we want our pictures to sell, but to be known not just as a source of news photographs but as a place where good photography is found that ‘informs’ on a number of different levels—literal, representational, symbolic, esthetic, emotional.” Archive Pictures represented over 40 changing contributors and closed its doors in 1990.
Joan Liftin also became an established editor of photography books by other photographers. She applied her rhythmic formalism and emotional quotient to shaping diverse projects and bodies of work for publication by both former students and photographer colleagues. She was the editor of Mary Ellen Mark’s Falkland Road (1978), Magnum Paris (1978, with Inge Morath), Charles Harbutt’s Progreso (1986) and Departures and Arrivals (2012), Jeff Jacobson’s Melting Point (2006, with Sylvia Plachy), and other titles. Liftin recently worked with Minor Matters Books to produce an illustrated volume devoted to Harbutt’s landmark 1970 lecture, The Unconcerned Photographer (2020), for which she wrote the introduction. Michelle Dunn Marsh, co-founder and publisher of Minor Matter Books, wrote “Joan Liftin defies singular description. If I had to limit myself to three words, I’d use ‘photographer, lover, editor.’ If I allowed myself a few more, I’d add ‘woman, teacher, activist, partner.’ I’ll stop at seven words. She would have stopped at three. She was a great editor.”
Liftin deeply influenced the field as a teacher and mentor in the United States and abroad. From 1988 to 2001, she served as chairperson of the Documentary and Photojournalism program at New York City’s International Center of Photography (ICP). David Little, Executive Director, of ICP shared, “Joan’s contribution to the Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism ICP students is not to be underestimated. She was a force to be reckoned with in all the most wonderful ways possible. She never minced words and her concise photo editing skills mixed with her wisdom and humor shed light and influenced the work of several decades of ICP students.”
In demand as a teacher as recently as last year, she also helped conceive and launch a documentary photography program in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2018. Her editing philosophy and personal approach to documentary projects attracted many devoted students and inspired the work of numerous photographers, editors, and curators working today. New York photographer and former Liftin student, Andrea Stern wrote, “Joan taught photography as if her (and our) life depended on it. At the heart of her teaching was an imperative to live life authentically, and to be ruthless in documenting that life. We learned how to recognize and, most importantly, how to embrace our unique way of seeing and feeling in the world. She treated photography as if it were a conduit to our deepest selves and her expectation that we use this tool to reveal, celebrate and expose our unvarnished truths was uncompromising.”
Born Joan Rita Liftin in Teaneck, New Jersey on November 1, 1933, her family moved to Brooklyn in 1935 where she grew up and attended Tilden High School, leaving New York to earn her BS in Journalism at Ohio State. Joan Liftin was predeceased by her husband, Charles Harbutt; her parents, Hilda Newman and Daniel Liftin; and sister, Muriel Liftin. She is survived by her stepchildren, Sarah, Charles and Damian (Abby Aquino) Harbutt; her cousin, Seymour Simon; her nephew, David Zeitlin; and five grandchildren, Jasper, Gabriel, and Caleb Kerbs; Julia Row Harbutt and Aemilia Row Harbutt.
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