From Father to Son: Tracing the Roots of Clemens Kalischer’s Humanist Vision

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Photographers are formed through myriad forces—formal schooling, technical mastery, or an empathetic connection to the people around them being just a few. This latter circumstance fueled the vision of photographer Clemens Kalischer and was likely seeded by a profound awareness of human nature he picked up as a child, observing his father at work.

Sometimes referred to as the invisible photographer, Kalischer possessed great empathy and a deep interest in the human condition. “He spent so much time with people when he photographed them, he was able to bridge being an observer and making a genuine connection with his subjects, so they didn't realize he was there anymore,” explains his daughter Tanya. “When I look at his photos, it's like he's seeing deep into the souls of his subjects, and capturing something intangible, without necessarily knowing them.”

Photographs © the Estate of Clemens Kalischer

Probing the Mind Through Art and Psychoanalysis

Born in Lindau, Germany, in 1921, Kalischer inherited an appreciation for the arts from his family. “He came from an intellectual Jewish family, and a lot of that had to do with art and music,” Tanya says. “My grandfather was an accomplished poet and painter, and art was an important part of his life.”

Clemens Kalischer posing with his parents as a young child, Germany, 1920s
Clemens Kalischer posing with his parents as a young child, Germany, 1920s.

In addition to artistic talents, the elder Kalischer was a psychoanalyst who worked extensively with children, often using art and play in his practice. In some instances, he would offer his young patients lodging in his home, a circumstance Clemens did not particularly appreciate. Yet this proximity to his father’s practice of not just talking with children, but reaching out to them through art, likely allowed him to understand at a very young age that there was more to human nature than how people presented on the surface.

In 1930 the family moved to Berlin, where the elder Kalischer began working with disturbed and delinquent children, a role that offered him deep insights into the dark forces at work during the early years of Hitler’s rise to power. As Tanya points out, “Through psychoanalysis with those kids, my grandfather was able to know the minds of the parents, and he realized they needed to leave Germany much earlier than most other people.”

Enemies of the State in France

One day, in March 1933, Kalischer announced to his family they would be leaving immediately for Switzerland. “My dad couldn’t tell any of his friends, he just had to leave,” says Tanya. “But my grandmother would not leave, she and my aunt stayed behind to pack their belongings and find a place to store them. My grandfather kept writing to her from Switzerland, saying, ‘You have to come now.’ He finally wrote a telegram saying ‘I’m very ill, come immediately,’ and with that she left.”

After a short stay in Switzerland, the family settled in Paris, where Clemens gravitated to wandering the city, visiting galleries and museums instead of attending school. “School was really tough for him,” Tanya says. “I think part of it was the system of recitation used in French schools, since it was a second language, and he was never really good at memorization.”

Kalischer’s earliest connection to photography was formed at this time, in the photography book Paris Vu Par Andre Kertesz, which he happened upon in a Parisian bookstore and saved up the money to purchase. “He was mesmerized by this book,” says Tanya, noting that the classic black-and-white images it contained clearly spoke to his own vision of the City of Light.

Kalischer on his bicycle as a teenager, France, late 1930s
Kalischer on his bicycle as a teenager, France, late 1930s.

During the summer of 1939, Kalischer was bicycling from Paris to Brittany with a friend when he saw posters telling foreign nationals to report to the nearby police station. He dutifully complied and was promptly detained due to his German nationality and sent to a work camp. Without any means to inform his family of his whereabouts, or future knowledge of their well-being, he endured hard labor and starvation in eight different camps within France over the next three years. During this time, his only solace was the photo book he had brought along on his bike trip. “That book was with him through every camp,” says Tanya, who tells of his tearing pages from the book a few at a time during forced marches between camps, so as to lighten his load.

While detained in the eighth camp, in Albi, France, a fellow prisoner told Kalischer there was another man in the camp with the same last name. Miraculously, it was his father. Soon they learned that his mother and sister were staying at a nearby farm and had been searching for them. As Tanya explains, “This was during the rise of the Vichy government, and my grandfather realized there had been a change in the direction of the camps.” Kalischer and his father had been imprisoned because they were German enemies of the state, not because they were Jewish. But suddenly there were lists being made to differentiate Jews from non-Jewish prisoners. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, they doubled down on efforts to plan an escape. Salvation ultimately came, thanks to Mr. Kalischer’s deep friendship with Anna Freud and Marie Bonaparte, who helped the family get their names included on an evacuation list organized by the American journalist Varian Fry.

Discovering His Passion for Pictures in New York

Upon his arrival in the United States in 1942, Kalischer was dressed in rags, weighed a mere 88 pounds, and spoke no English. “He had no idea about becoming a photographer, there was no plan except to survive,” says Tanya.

The High Line viewed from above, New York City, 1947-48
The High Line viewed from above, New York City, 1947-48.

While his situation was dire, Clemens and his family had survived much worse. He found early employment putting up storefront window decorations at Macy’s, and then as a copy boy at Agence France-Presse, where his knowledge of the language added to his comfort level. And, remarkably, what remained of his prized book of Kertesz photographs had survived the work camps and made the voyage to America with him.

One day, in October 1946, the agency found itself without a photographer to cover a story about the SS Normandie being towed off to be scrapped. Knowing that he had an interest in photography, the editor approached Kalischer to ask if he might be interested to fill in. Says Tanya, “My dad didn't own a camera, but he had met some sailors, and one of them had a Rolleiflex. He borrowed it and stayed up all night practicing how to load the film.”

The next day, Kalischer made his way around all the other photographers at the docks to capture a moody picture of the ship, which the agency loved. “That's all it took for my dad to settle on photography,” explains Tanya. “Someone had given him praise, and because he had nothing, he decided, ‘If someone thinks I'm okay at this, why not learn?’ Everything he did was self-taught,” she elaborates. “Throughout his life, the advice he would give was, ‘Just do it. You don't need to study it. If you have the passion for it, you'll have to do it.’”

Finding Himself Among the Displaced

After settling in New York, Kalischer had taken some free art classes at Cooper Union, and he soon enrolled in a photography class taught by Berenice Abbott. To build a portfolio, he wandered the city photographing by day and, although not a member, used the New York Photo League’s darkroom to develop his film and print pictures at night.

Police Line and crowd gathered for dedication of plaque commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Riverside Drive and West 83rd Street, New York, 1947
Police line and crowd gathered for dedication of plaque commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Riverside Drive and West 83rd Street, New York, 1947.

One location for his photo excursions was the West Side docks, where he discovered large groups of refugees arriving from Europe. Although he had immigrated through Baltimore just a few years earlier, he found this scene extremely familiar. “These people were like him, and he was drawn to them,” says Tanya. “He spent over a year going back repeatedly to capture the arrival of the Displaced Persons.”

His portraits of these new immigrants became his earliest, and his most famous, photo series. In discussing the portraits years later, he would explain, “I was just a silent observer. I was not pushing into their lives. I was recording their experience.” Tanya elaborates, “He wasn't a reporter, he was recording. Without communicating directly, he felt that his subjects understood that he knew their experience. He was doing all this from a place of empathy, of understanding, of connection.” She adds, “That was his interpretation of why these people were not bothered by his camera and let him up very close to their lives.”

Two women sitting on luggage at the docks, from the Displaced Persons series 1947-48
Two women sitting on luggage at the docks, from the Displaced Persons series 1947-48.

Another contributing factor to the authentic emotions captured in these portraits was his camera—a Rolleiflex—typically held at waist level. “In those early years, his subjects didn't necessarily know he was even photographing them, which gave him an ability to move about unnoticed,” Tanya says. “People had no idea what he was capturing.”

Leaving the Urban Art Scene for a Rustic Life

After amassing a sizable collection of photographs, Kalischer showed them to an editor at The New York Times, who asked to see more of his work and soon began giving him assignments. Within a year of picking up a camera, he was receiving growing acknowledgment for his work. Coupled with this recognition was a blossoming social status, involving invitations to New York gallery receptions and socialite events. “My father hated that,” Tanya says. “He just wanted to do his art. He didn't want to schmooze, dress up, and discuss the art. He wasn't trying to be in the limelight. New York was becoming a place where he was being asked to do things that had no interest to him. It wasn't the darkroom. It wasn't work, and he wanted to be away from this aspect of life that did not appeal to him.”

Boy with Dog, New York City, 1947-48, an image featured in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, The Family of Man
Boy with Dog, New York City, 1947-48, an image featured in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, The Family of Man.

One form of escape from the city that Kalischer had cultivated during his early years in New York was reconnecting with the youth hostel movement he had briefly explored as a teenager in France. Says Tanya, “These were activities that brought him joy, going hiking and being in nature.” She describes an early trip to the Berkshires he took with youth hostel friends, where the group ended up at the dance center Jacob's Pillow, in western Massachusetts. As providence would have it, a photographer hired for a dance magazine shoot had just canceled, and Kalischer agreed to take their place. “A lot of his life was determined by happenstance,” Tanya says. “It was a recurring theme for him.”

Around this time, Kalischer also spent a year in the Adirondacks, at a sanatorium in Lake Placid, after contracting tuberculosis. According to Tanya, he was a rather disobedient patient, often sneaking out to take hikes and photograph in the area. “But during that time away,” she explains, “I think he decided that he wanted to leave New York City for good.”

He had been exposed to dance performances at Jacob's Pillow, and he was also familiar with Tanglewood and its music scene in nearby Lenox. The fact that this area was within a few hours of both New York City and Boston—two important hubs for photo assignments—appealed to him. So, in 1951, he headed for the Berkshires with no contacts and nowhere to sleep. Someone recommended he look for lodging at an inn in Lenox. Arriving there at night, he soon realized that the innkeeper’s son was a photographer in New York, whom he knew. After learning this news, Kalischer was given a warm welcome and free lodging as he sought a permanent place to live, finally settling in the neighboring town of Stockbridge.

Mahalia Jackson performing at the Music Inn, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 1958
Mahalia Jackson performing at the Music Inn, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 1958.

Several years later, while seeking to expand on the darkroom space in his home, Kalischer purchased a historic building on Main Street. He soon realized the building offered a lot of extra space to fill, so he opened The Image Gallery* as a venue for emerging artists to show their work. “He loved to support people who were discovering their art,” says Tanya. “He helped many artists over the years, and they formed lifelong relationships.”

Immersive Assignments and Darkroom Magic

Kalischer’s entire career was spent working as a freelance artist. “He followed his interests, his intuition, his passions,” says Tanya. “He would just go and photograph a subject, and then he'd go The New York Times, or other publications and ask if they were interested.”

Postmaster Ned Summers, Peacham, Vermont, 1959
Postmaster Ned Summers, Peacham, Vermont, 1959.

His relationship with the Times spanned decades and involved both him pitching story ideas and the paper giving him assignments. Another frequent client was Vermont Life magazine, which would assign him immersive projects lasting weeks, such as an in-depth series on the town of Peacham, or extended documentation of the Marlboro Music Festival, which he photographed every summer for more than 50 years. “Those types of assignments were the things that would give him a bit of free range,” Tanya says. “They were vitally important to his soul.”

While it’s unclear when Kalischer purchased his first camera, he worked with a variety of formats and brands during his career. “He really had no preference for material things,” says Tanya. “If it worked, it worked. He started with Rolleiflexes, but he also used Mamiyas, Canons, and Nikons. My dad lived an extraordinarily frugal life, but sometimes he'd come home and say, ‘I bought a new camera.’ That was a luxury for him.”

Given his specialty in shooting with black-and-white film, one distinguishing aspect of Kalischer’s photographs is the quality of his printing. Tanya recalls the magic of sitting in the darkroom as a child, watching him at work. “He was a perfectionist,” she says. “It had nothing to do with what would satisfy the publication, it was his aesthetic that was important. He knew how to look at a negative and figure out exactly how to move his hands, burning and dodging. He knew what to do instinctively, without necessarily being able to articulate it.”

The Freedoms of a Freelance Life

Since Kalischer was fully dependent on a freelance career for income, he worked constantly. “There was no family vacation,” Tanya remembers. “But we would take a three-month trip to Europe in the summer because he was doing an assignment there or working on his own ideas.”

Kalischer with daughters Cornelia and Tanya, Vermont, 1967
Kalischer with daughters Cornelia and Tanya, Vermont, 1967.

From the early 1960s on, Kalischer traveled regularly to European countries, with the notable exception of Germany. “My dad was really open-minded and not hateful about his past,” Tanya explains. “But he refused to speak German or go to Germany. It was too painful.”

One ironic departure from this rule was Kalisher’s choice of automobile—a Volkswagen camper van. “At the time, this was the only vehicle on the market that was large enough for him to sleep in,” she says, “as well as transport large paintings for gallery exhibits.”

During a family trip to Europe in summer 1969, Kalischer arranged to purchase a van in which the family would travel, and then ship back to the United States. “He did not want to set foot in Germany, so he made plans to pick it up in a different country,” Tanya recalls. “But there was a glitch in the manufacturing, and it wasn't ready.”

Kalischer’s camper van at the base of a Mountain, Italy, 1962
Kalischer’s camper van at the base of a Mountain, Italy, 1962.

Their subsequent excursion into Germany to pick up the van became an unfortunate reminder of the past. When searching for a place to stay, innkeepers claimed to be full, while making anti-Semitic remarks about the family in German. “They didn't realize my parents were fluent,” says Tanya. “At the second place we tried, my parents said, ‘We hear what you're saying, but we have two small children with us, so you're giving us a room.’”

Reconciliation with His German Heritage

In spite of such past trauma, during the 1990s Kalischer connected with an organization that would have a profound effect on this unresolved aspect of his life. The not-for-profit organization One-by-One was founded with a mission to connect survivors and perpetrators of the Holocaust through a group dialogue of reconciliation, understanding, and shared humanity. Says Tanya, “The idea of dialogue and reconciliation really appealed to my dad. In that process, it allowed him to re-find his voice in German, and to own that voice as his mother language, and not something representing oppression.”

Photo from Kalischer’s documentation of the organization One-by-One
Photo from Kalischer’s documentation of the organization One-by-One.

In addition to attending and photographing One-by-One gatherings in the United States and in Germany, Kalischer began talking to young Germans about current challenges they faced. “While he never dwelled on telling his own story to others,” she says, “all of a sudden he started speaking in schools, and doing interviews in German, for hours at a time.”

This rekindled connection with his homeland also had a profound effect on Kalischer’s art. A contact he met through One-by-One became one of the editors of his self-titled book of photographs, published in 2002 by Hatje Cantz, and accompanied by exhibitions that toured internationally.

Elderly Couple on Boat, Pointing, from the Displaced Persons series 1947-48
Elderly Couple on Boat, Pointing, from the Displaced Persons series 1947-48.

Tanya describes her father’s last large exhibit in 2014, held in Bremerhaven, Germany, which was the port of embarkation for most of the Displaced Persons traveling to New York in the 1940s. “There's an incredible emigration museum there,” she points out. “So, this exhibit about these Displaced Persons arriving in New York from Bremerhaven brought things full circle, with the walls full of portraits of passengers who had departed from that place. I think it allowed him to reclaim some of his past.”

*Kalischer passed away, in June 2018, at the age of 97; however, The Image Gallery still operates today and is open to the public during limited hours and by appointment. A retrospective of Kalischer’s photographs is currently on display in the gallery to celebrate the centennial of his birth.

Do you have a special story to share about how photography influenced a connection with your father (or your child)? Please share it with us in the Comments section, below.

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