“Everything is serious. Everything is not serious.”
Now floundering in the twilight of a mediocre career, Paul Liebhardt was born at a very early age. It was somewhere in the jungles of the 585 area code in a dimly lit room that all present estimated was two and two thirds stops from a basic daylight exposure. As the doctor was snipping the umbilical cord Paul looked up at him and said: “That thing looks like a cable release.” This foretold a life in photography. But it was a life that would not begin until long after the age of consent and many moons after he finally passed his driver’s exam.
Paul’s early years were plagued by numerous bad choices, missteps, lousy luck, and hundreds of donuts. Among the low points were: his brief stint as birth control advisor to the Osmond family, his arrest in the 60’s for impersonating an Avon Lady, the year he spent as a bail-bondsman for the Tulsa Polaroid Club, the embarrassment he suffered for once having to pay for free love in Sweden and finally his disastrous attempt at playwriting. All of his literary efforts, especially the love story Hour of the Hickey, the courtroom drama I a Meatloaf, the slapstick comedy Tarzan gets his Vine Caught, the x-rated Four is a Four Letter Word and the musical Oh! Klahoma! (a nude revival of the original Oklahoma in which wagon loads of pioneers wife-swapped their way west), were uniformly panned by the critics. Only Mother Stroebel’s Oatmeal, a psychological western spoofing the evils of hoof and mouth disease, survived and continues to be a cult classic.
As the 60’s ended Paul could be found aimlessly wandering the streets of Houston, his arms folded behind his back, humming softly. In an effort to find himself he bought a magnifying glass and took a job as a caddy at a miniature golf course. One day while gazing at his feet he was whacked on the head by the blade of an out of control windmill and he had an epiphany. This proved confusing at first because he didn’t know what an epiphany was. It was not until after a brief consultation with the then young, but already balding, Dr. Phil that he realized the future was directly ahead of him. “Where else” Dr. Phil asked “would it be?” Now understanding that his creative potential was not being met, he immediately slapped his meager belongings into his non-matching luggage and moved to California. Not only was this a turning point in his life, but he also gained two hours.
He arrived in California penniless—totally broke. But today after some thirty years of total dedication and hard work he is only about $350 in debt. Perhaps the highlight of his early California days came when he conducted the LA Philharmonic in a rousing rendition of the 1812 Overture at the Hollywood Bowl. This proved a surprise to everyone because he wasn’t asked. However, it was in California that he developed his current and now famous lifestyle—one that does not require his presence. It was in California that he also refined his overall philosophy of life which goes: “When the horse dies, get off.”
Even though he prefers Hillary Duff to Hillary Clinton, he has successfully faked his way into the adult community. He is a blood donor, Samba enthusiast, occasional taxpayer, and snappy dresser. (“He dresses well and quickly too,” someone of little consequence once said.) Right about the same time Abba became popular this tall, blond, blue-eyed Robert Redford look-alike began zipping around the world making snapshots. He has made zillions of them— many of which he says are in focus. He is currently working on a book—The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway. He’s about half way through it.
Although a practitioner of many forms of photography, he does not do any nude photography because he says he gets cold so easily. Paul’s snaps are simply made—without a tripod, without a meter, without filters, without a flash, without auto focus lenses and without a photojournalist’s vest (although someday he hopes to own one because they look so cool). They are made with what photo historians now refer to as “film.” He still prefers a typewriter to word processing and potato chips to computer chips. He is the opposite of microwave cooking, ATM’s and virtual reality. So he is a holdout—a dinosaur—a warmly analog chap in world gone coldly digital. He does admit to once to experimenting with a cell phone camera but was only successful in making a picture of his ear.
When not on the road or reading, Paul can be found giving lectures and workshops in various bars, lounges, gyms, living rooms and classrooms in California. A mix of photographic advice, travel tips and some stolen philosophy, his talks have been characterized as providing a few Baco Bits of knowledge that one can sprinkle over the salad bar of life. Here are a few examples:
Art flourishes where there is a sense of adventure.
There is a mistaken belief some rather mysterious skill is necessary to become a good photographer. Whereas the only real requirement is the ability to see clearly and objectively. Plus of course having the urge to take photographs.
Risk is the essence of it. You’re only as good as you’re willing to be bad.
Travel makes you modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.
Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
The virtue of the camera is not the power it has to transform the photographer into an artist, but the impulse it gives him to keep on looking.
Success on your own terms is all that matters. What difference does it make if you’re successful at a job that is meaningless to you, what does it matter?
The more remote and solitary a place is the more inspiring it is.
As long as you are traveling toward the unknown, you’re on the right track.
Money is great stuff to have, but when it comes to the act of creation, the best thing is not to think of money too much. It constipates the whole process.
Travel like Gandhi. With simple clothes and an uncluttered mind.
The best pictures are taken by those who feel some excitement about life and use the camera to share their enthusiasm with others.
The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.
The power, purity and possibilities of a still photograph are infinite.
Learning isn’t a means to an end, it is an end in itself.
Pictures can go to the heart of an important paradox: that suffering can happen in sensual settings, that a place can be cruel and inviting all at once.
The secret of photography’s magic, power and appeal is as a substitute for reality, photography may be more powerful and appealing than reality itself.
Photography has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.
As a final note Paul does not consider a life of shooting and traveling a “job.” Yes it is fun, yes it is inspiring, yes it is life affirming, but above and beyond all this, it is a privilege. The words Henry Luce wrote in 1936 to set the tone and establish the mission for his new magazine that he named Life are as meaningful today as when he wrote them:
……to see and take pleasure in seeing
to see and be amazed
to see and be instructed