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"He Paints With Light"

In the photo lab, Jack Leb turns a negative into a thing of beauty. In his life, as he made his way through the Middle East and across the sea to America, he sometimes had to do the same.


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By Nadia Oehlsen

An infant smiles blissfully, eyes closed, as her mother kisses her cheek. It's a perfect moment captured in black and white by an imperfect negative. "There is hardly any image on it--a very thin negative," says Jack Leb, describing his efforts to create adequate contrast in the print. "But that's a beautiful photograph."

The photographer who shot the portrait normally has another lab print her work, but she's come to Polaris, the small lab where Leb and a partner hand print black-and-white film, hoping they'll be able to save the underexposed shot and match it to others in the series. "It's gonna take a lot of time," Leb says. "She shot ten different subjects of the same baby. She wants all the photographs to be matched in density, in the content. So to do that, you're gonna spend a lot of time and a lot of paper." And the paper's not cheap. It's a Hungarian brand of fiber stock that's double the weight of the resin-coated paper most photographers use. "But RC, you can't get good-quality prints made from it, and it won't last so long," he says. "RC prints, maybe four, five years end up just turning yellow. But the fiber photographs will last you 30, 40 years--50 years."

Leb joined Gamma Photo Labs shortly after it started up in 1959, and longtime customers of the local photography giant use gushing superlatives to describe his work. "He's the Dalai Lama of black-and-white printing," says Marc Hauser, a Chicago photographer who's renowned for his portraits. "He is the master in art in what he does."

Hauser was 16 when he first walked into Gamma, in 1968. His relatives owned Astra Photo Service, but they were often too busy to develop his film. Someone suggested Gamma. "They said, 'If you really want good prints, go to the back of the place and talk to the printer, Jack Leb.'" Hauser kept coming back to Gamma, for Leb's advice as much as for his printing. "He'd always say, 'Marc, expose the negative a little longer or don't shoot the ASA of the film. Give me a richer negative. I wanna have detail in those shadows.' Even to this day, sometimes he says to me, 'Marc, the reason why this looks like this is you need a little gutsier negative.'"

Archie Lieberman was already an award-winning photographer for Life, Look, Time, and Collier's magazines in 1960, when Mickey Pallas, who owned Gamma, solicited his business. Lieberman says he was hesitant to let someone else develop and print his film. "I kept saying, 'Hey Mickey, I can make a living on a dollar and a half a picture.' And he rightfully said, 'You've got more stuff to do than just print pictures.'" Pallas eventually got Lieberman's business, and Leb has kept it ever since. "I used to tell young photographers who were printing their own pictures, 'Go get your pictures printed by Jack and see how they could look,'" Lieberman says. "They would do it, and they were so proud of themselves. The guy's a master. He's a genius. He's one of those very talented people that come into your life not very often."

Leb continued to work at Gamma after Pallas sold the business in 1972 and remained its chief printer and a vice president while the lab changed hands a few more times. But he left after it was sold in 1995. Some photographers say they withdrew their business from Gamma because they suspected the lab's new owners of pressuring Leb to leave so they'd be rid of his high salary and benefits package. Leb says he was never told that outright, but he acknowledges being bothered by several cost-saving changes the new owners had implemented, including cutting staff and encouraging those who remained to spend less time talking to customers. "It didn't work because I had a good relationship with our customers," he says. "I couldn't talk to them and tell them what's going on anymore." (In November 1999 the lab was sold again, to Photobition, a British company, for $4.3 million.)

Lieberman says he doesn't worry about Leb's professional future. "He's tough," he says. "Nobody can take advantage of him."

Leb's toughness no doubt has its roots in his upbringing during a turbulent time in the Middle East. He was born Hagop Leblebijian on Christmas in 1925 within the walled compound of an Armenian Orthodox Christian convent in Jerusalem's Old City. The compound, about the size of two football fields, encompassed two churches and several other buildings originally built as a home for priests and Armenian boys who were being groomed for the priesthood. There was also a smaller area for nuns. During World War I the convent began to take in refugees fleeing massacres by Turkish soldiers and irregulars in which more than a million and a half Armenians would eventually die.

Leb's father, Haroutoun Leblebijian, had been born just before the turn of the century in Urfa, a small city in what's now southeastern Turkey that had a large Armenian population. Haroutoun lost several family members, including his parents and five of his seven brothers, in the massacres and in 1915 barely escaped being killed himself. A year later he and several friends were arrested by Turkish soldiers and taken to a prison in Aleppo, in what's now Syria, to be hanged with several other Armenian men. "My family's [paternal] side are good singers," Leb says. "So in the prison [he] used to sing all the time. The guy in charge of the prison used to say to the guards, 'Who is this guy singing?' And they say, 'You know there's this guy that we brought in from Urfa.' He said, 'Bring him over.' So my dad used to go and sing for him every night. What he did, he postponed the hanging."

An Armenian horse-and-buggy merchant who was friends with the prison's warden was visiting one night and heard the Armenian prisoners singing. "The Armenian guy was very wealthy, so he did the arrangement with this guy in charge of the prison, paid him in gold," Leb says. "And one night he brought a carriage and took all the guys back to Urfa."

There Haroutoun married Osanna Qassabian, a former neighbor, and soon after, they and their surviving relatives and friends fled to Cyprus. After a brief stay there, they decided to try to join the Armenians in Jerusalem. But the chaos of World War I, as the Allies fought the Turks and Germans for control of their favorite pieces of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, made it hard to travel anywhere in the region. The group made it to Damascus, where they boarded a train that was supposed to go to Amman, Transjordan, about 60 miles west of Jerusalem, as soon as the tracks were repaired. "They lived in it for a year, year and a half," Leb says. "There my mother had her first daughter."

In 1921 Leb's parents finally made it to Jerusalem and the Armenian compound, where a few thousand other Armenians were living. They moved into a one-room house in the convent, sharing a bathroom with four other families. "We lived in the convent like a family," says Leb. "In the morning, at five o'clock, huge doors used to open up, and at nine o'clock at night they closed the doors. If you stayed out you were out. You couldn't come in. And so it was like a family. We had a lot of friends. We used to sit and play at night, so it was very safe."

When Leb was 11 his father found him a summer job in the home photography lab of a Jewish man who lived ten miles from the Old City. "In the old days they had chrome plates," says Leb. "You'd put the photographs in a special solution that they had. Then you'd lay it on the glass, then you'd roll it. You take all the water out, and there is a plate dryer. You put it inside, you cover it, and with that heat it dries and gives a shine. If you don't roll it well you don't get a good gloss on it. If you want it to be matte, you put it upside down. So that was my job--drying prints all day long and mopping the floors, warming the chemicals." He worked at the lab every summer and many weekends for four years.

To avoid walking the entire ten miles four times a day--to work, home for midday meals, back to work, then back home--Leb sneaked rides on the backs of trucks and buses. When he was 14 he saved enough money to buy two wheels and a seat, and using other materials he'd scrounged up, fashioned a brakeless bicycle. "I was so happy," he says. "I had to stop with my foot--that was the brake. I used to ride the bicycle every day after school, so I was very good at it. We had a neighbor, his father was doing well, so he bought him a bicycle with two seats. Me and him, we used to go every weekend right out of [town]. We used to pack every Sunday morning--three, four o'clock. We used to go [as if] from here to Wisconsin or different places, and we used to ride back."

The British didn't provide free education for their subjects in Palestine, and when Leb was 16 his family could no longer afford the high school tuition. Like many of his Armenian peers, he dropped out to apprentice in a trade. He was soon hired by a Swedish photographer who received most of his commissions from wealthy international patrons of the elegant American Colony hotel in Jerusalem. "At that time everything was glass plates," Leb says. "There were no sheet films in older days. So when we had to go to a location I had to carry his two boxes, like shoe-shine boxes. They were heavy."

The Swedish photographer taught Leb how to bleach parts of images with potassium ferrous cyanide. "He used to do that in prints, in glass plates," Leb says. "He used to bleach open the clouds, things like that. In a fraction of a second you can just ruin the photograph, so it's got to be diluted a certain way."

In the 1940s massive numbers of Jewish immigrants began arriving in Palestine, fleeing anti-Semitism, war, and the holocaust. Tension over who would control the region after the British pulled out began to erupt in violence. "I saw people shot on the street," Leb says. To make himself less of a target, he changed his look to fit the neighborhoods he passed through. "I used to wear a--what do you call it?--like a fez, because we were living in a Muslim neighborhood so they knew that I wasn't a Jew, because they used to give me a hard time," he says. "Once I got where I was working--it's a border, Arab and Jewish neighborhood--I had to take that off because of snipers."

Leb and his two younger brothers finally left Palestine in the spring of 1947. "We were living in no-man's-land, and they were shooting at each other, so we had to move out of there," he says. "My mom saw the massacres in Turkey, and she told us three brothers, 'Pack everything and go to Jordan.'" His two older sisters were already in Amman, and his mother would eventually join them, though his father stayed behind a few years longer to help in the convent.

Leb quickly found a part-time job retouching photos for a portrait photographer, and his brothers were hired at an auto body shop. During their off hours they hung out at a cafe frequented mostly by Armenians, who came to socialize, hear the news, and share leads on better jobs. Through one of those leads, Leb was hired as an assistant to a wealthy Armenian who was the chief photographer for Transjordan's King Abdullah ibn Hussein and his family. "At that time 95 percent of the photographers [in Amman] were Armenians," he says. He was soon given more responsibility. "My boss, he was in his 60s. He was having problems with his hands shaking. The photographs were not that sharp." So Leb began to take the pictures. "Every week there was something I had to go to. For two, three hours I had to sit there, wait until they called me," he says. "I just took the pictures and put it in the album, and the driver came, the sergeant came. We just gave the album to him. We'd send a bill to the palace, and they paid the bill."

Leb spent countless hours observing the king and his associates and family while he waited to take photos of official and personal events. When no one else was around King Abdullah would ask him questions. "Where were you born? Where do you come from? How many people are in your family? How do you pass your time?" Leb says. "He'd start talking like a regular person. He talks, and you can answer. But if there were other people next to him, then you gotta raise your hand."

Abdullah had always been accommodating to the British. He'd been the unofficial ruler since 1921 and had become the official king in 1945, when a treaty with Britain made Transjordan an independent state. In May 1948 Transjordan seized control of a large chunk of the west bank of the Jordan River, which Israel had claimed the month before as part of its new state. Abdullah formally annexed the area in April 1950 and declared its inhabitants official residents of what would from then on be called Jordan. Many members of the Arab League opposed this move, arguing that it seemed to concede the rest of Palestine to Israel, and on July 20, 1951, during a visit to the Dome of the Rock mosque in East Jerusalem, Abdullah was assassinated by a Palestinian who suspected him of colluding with Israel.

Abdullah's son, Talal ibn Abdullah, was installed as the new king. Leb says he was more devout and formal than his predecessor. "Every Friday--that is their Sunday--he used to ride a white horse around the city and just look around," he says. "Very seldom he spoke to you, unless he wanted you to do something or take a picture." Talal opposed cooperation with Britain, which still wielded a considerable amount of power over the country's affairs. The Jordanian parliament disliked that position and deposed him in August 1952, declaring that Talal had a mental problem--though Leb thought he'd seemed perfectly sane.

Talal's 13-year-old son, Hussein ibn Talal, then became king, with a council of regents acting on his behalf until he turned 18. Leb had felt intimidated by Abdullah and Talal, but he didn't feel intimidated by Hussein. "I was older than Hussein, and when he talked to me he talked to me like a friend," Leb says. "He didn't have that--what do you call it? 'I am the king.' He was close to people more than Talal and Abdullah were."

Educated in Britain, Hussein spoke English and classical and common Arabic, but his elders often found other languages useful. At Hussein's 14th birthday party, his aunt and an ambassador's wife began to converse with Leb in Turkish. "Some of these ladies, they speak Turkish with each other if they want to keep something secret. So she started talking to me," Leb says. The ambassador's wife, who'd spent a lot of time in Europe, said she expected Hussein would be bored in Amman, which didn't have the hopping nightclubs and restaurants it has today. "Jordan is a grave for younger guys," she told Leb. "There is no place to have fun for them."

Hussein knew that when his elders switched languages they were keeping something from him, and he asked Leb how he knew Turkish. "I said, 'I learned it from my family, my mother and father.' He said, 'You know what? I'm gonna learn this language.' He never learned the language."

During their early years in Amman the Leblebijians occasionally visited family and friends who remained in the Armenian compound in Jerusalem. In 1949 Leb proposed to Anna Leblebijian, a childhood friend still living in the compound, at the suggestion of her mother and his. When Anna's father was a child his entire family was killed in one of the Urfa massacres, and Leb's father had raised the boy.

No one expected Leb and Anna to take so long to get married. Though he worked for a rich man photographing royalty, he wasn't paid any more than the pittance earned by most photographers. "I didn't have no money," he says. "I said, 'How am I gonna get married?' You're gonna have a house, you're gonna have furniture, you're gonna have a wedding." But he visited Anna when he could, warding off other would-be suitors and enduring the criticism of impatient relatives and friends while he tried to save enough money.

His boss wanted to keep up with the latest photographic innovations, so he would send Leb to Germany for two weeks at a time to learn new techniques from manufacturers. "We were the only lab [in Amman] processing Ektachrome and making color prints," he says. "We used to make thousands and thousands of slides, duplicating them in Jordan." Color processing was more complicated than it is today, and good prints harder to achieve. But Leb quickly learned how to improve what he shot. "Let's say the faces were light. I used to add colors with Q-Tips, make them more red or yellow. I did a lot of things like that in my younger days."

Leb's boss also sent him to photograph Jordanian high-society events, many of which were attended by members of Britain's air force. At a party in 1948 he met an officer named Heller, a photographer who was fascinated by the new strobe Leb was using. It was still a novel device, allowing him to take up to 350 photos on one battery charge. Heller asked Leb to take several photos at the party and soon became his best customer. They also became close friends, and later Heller offered to set Leb up with his own darkroom so that he could moonlight. "He says, 'I buy anything you want, then you can pay me back,'" Leb says. "Then he bought everything that I needed. I started doing the processing at home, and I was busy until midnight, literally, seven days a week."

A couple of years later Heller returned to England, but demand for Leb's work continued. He met an Arab photographer for the Jordanian army, and they became partners. "We had so much business," Leb says. "We had weddings, we had parties, newspaper jobs, agencies. We used to turn jobs down. I used to do processing, printing at home. I used to shoot on the weekends. He used to shoot during the week." Leb finally thought he had enough money to support Anna, and the two were married in 1953.

Four years later the United Nations began to offer refugees in the Middle East loans to cover the airfare if they wanted to move to Canada, Australia, Britain, or the United States. Anna liked the idea of joining Leb's sisters in Chicago, but he was reluctant to leave his booming photography business for a country in which he had no interest. She applied for visas for herself and their two children, and she kept pushing him to apply for one too. When their visas took a year and a half to come through, Leb figured he could risk applying for one. "I said to myself, 'My family waited a year and a half to get their visas. If I apply now, in a year, year and a half, she will see that we have a shop, good business, money's coming in. She will forget.'" He hadn't counted on getting special treatment in return for his years of service to Jordan's elite. "After one week they called me," he says. "They said, 'Your visa is ready.' They didn't know that I didn't want to come here."

The Leblebijians, including Leb's parents, arrived in Chicago in April 1959 and moved in with Leb's sister's family, who lived near Winthrop and Thorndale. Leb found a handful of photography businesses in the phone book, and within two days was hired by Dave Kleiman Studio, at Wabash and Lake Streets.

Leb was fluent in Armenian, Turkish, and Arabic, and had a good command of Hebrew and British English, but it took him a while to understand American English and photography lingo--what he knew as acetic acid in Jordan was called shortstop here, what he knew as hypo was called fixer here. And there were other adjustments to make. When his boss sent him to photograph the president of Pure Oil at a building half a block from the lab, he got lost because he was looking for a painted sign rather than a name chiseled into the stone of the building. "I got in there--these guys are running around," he says. "They say, 'You're late! It's 4:30! The president's got another appointment!' And I say to myself, 'What the hell are these guys hollering for? I photographed kings. Nobody hollered at me.'"

Still, Leb felt lucky to have been hired as a photographer--most of the Armenian immigrants he knew had to work in factories. But he found Chicago's culture and work environment a depressing contrast to what he'd known in the Middle East, where, for instance, most people went home for a midday family meal. "Lunchtime, I saw all of the sudden everybody opens his lunch bag and goes on the fire escape behind the building. I said, 'What kind of a life is this?' And I used to talk to some of my friends, they'd say, 'You know, I'm working night shift.' I'd say, 'Night shift?'"

After a couple of weeks Leb decided he wanted to return to Amman, but Anna wouldn't allow him to give up on America so soon. She recalls, "I said, 'If you wanna go, go ahead. I'm not coming with you.'" Not that she found life here easy. While Leb worked she, knowing few English words and with two young children in tow, walked for hours looking for an apartment to rent. "Everyplace I go for rent it's marked. I go, I ring the bell, and everybody come outside, says, 'What do you want?' I say, 'I wanna look in apartment for rent.' 'You have kids?' I say, 'Yes, I got two kids.' 'We don't give you.'" Finally she found some European immigrants who allowed children in their building at Lakewood and Thorndale.

Leb had worked for Kleiman for only a couple of months when he heard that Mickey Pallas had just opened a studio and lab. Soon Leb was working part-time for Pallas, though he considered himself more a photographer than a printer. But Pallas said he had enough customers to keep them both busy taking pictures, and meanwhile they'd process and print other people's film. Leb says that when photographers saw how good their prints were they told Pallas they'd give him all their business if he hired Leb full-time.

Hagop Leblebijian unofficially became Jack Leb shortly after he started at Gamma and grew tired of hearing his name butchered by colleagues and customers. At first he thought about changing it legally. "But my dad got mad at me," he says. "I told him once before he passed away. He said, 'You can't do that. After I am dead, you can do that--not now.'"

Leb, Pallas, and Pallas's wife, Millie, handled all of Gamma's business at first. Within four years they'd added 15 employees and outgrown their space, so they moved Gamma to 319 W. Erie. For a few years they had a studio space where they could do product shots for magazines, ad agencies, and other businesses, but processing, duplicating, printing, and mounting orders from Leo Burnett, Playboy, and scores of other clients brought in enough revenue and took enough time that they decided to scrap the studio and build more lab space.

Leb, who was given shares of stock in the business, oversaw Gamma's black-and-white processing and printing lab, which left him less and less time for photographing. He found he didn't mind. Printing, he says, "was always a challenge, not something you just put in there, expose it. This had to be done right. And you are adding backgrounds to the photograph, you are extending it. You can't do it over again, and if you mess it up you're gonna lose that client. So I had to make sure that it was done right and that it was good. So I never looked back and said, 'What about if I go back again and shoot?' I did shooting for 15, 20 years, so I don't care about shooting anymore. I don't even know where my cameras are." He says his children long ago took over as photographers of family events.

Demand for color processing and printing increased during the early 60s, so Pallas and Leb brought in Andre Shellenberg to oversee a full-fledged color lab. Leb had duplicated some color transparencies for Playboy, but his first love was black and white, and now he could do it full-time.

After seven years at Gamma, Leb and Anna bought a three-flat in Rogers Park. They still live in the tidy second-floor apartment, which is decorated with a couple hundred family photos, including some old black-and-white and colorized portraits of the young Anna and Leb.

Mickey and Millie Pallas lobbied Leb to let Anna come work with them. But Anna had had a job for two years at a small electrical parts factory, and Leb's mother had grown tired of watching Anna and Leb's three children. So Leb refused to hire Anna. "My mom didn't wanna take care of the kids," he says. "My dad says, 'Yes, I will take care of all the kids,' but my dad can't take care of all of the kids. You know, mothers always take care of the kids. So that was the reason that she said, 'You stay home, take care of the kids.' Otherwise, I will be happier if she came with me to work. She'd learn a lot of things at Gamma."

It's still a sore subject with Anna, who's now 69. "I say, 'Jack, I wanna come work with you. I learn everything.' He say, 'No, stay home, take care your kids.' When you go to work you learn everything--how to speak good, everything. All his fault!"

And she didn't like it that Leb worked 50 to 60 hours a week. "Sometimes I get mad," she says. "I liked he come early. No, he never do. He said, 'First come job.'" Leb admits his work habits might have been a bit extreme but says that's typical of his generation and of a new immigrant trying to support a large family. "When we came we worked so hard to make money to support our family," he says. "And it was a new company we started, and I made sure that it was running well, it's gonna be good.

"My kids were first generation. They didn't see all that. They lived here. I bought them cars when they were in high school. They were in Gordon [Technical High School], a private school. And they went to colleges. They didn't see all that, so their first priority is their families, then their jobs."

Nevertheless, on weekends and holidays their apartment was the social center of their extended family. "We had always a big party, all the family around the table from here to there," says Leb. "We had always every Christmas, Thanksgiving, whatever, we had a party in our apartment. Very rare we went to my sister's or my brother's. Now they are all gone. They are all retired. They live in Vegas. I am the only one that's still working."

Anna's mother still lives on the first floor, and Anna and Leb's daughter, Astina Kokuzian, lives with her husband and their youngest son in the apartment above her parents. Kokuzian describes her father as a workaholic. "[Photography] was something that he had started when he was very young and luckily was able to get into when he came to this country," she says. "That's been his whole life and his love, and I think that's why he probably still does it today. Not because he really likes to work--I'm sure that's part of it--but it's also because he enjoys and he loves what he's doing. I think that's what keeps him going. As a result of that, I think it's instilled a lot of good values in us, in the children, as far as work ethics, pride in what you do, enjoying and liking what you do, because it makes a difference. I think he's been a good provider because of it. He was a great father."

Kokuzian worked at Gamma two summers when she was a teenager. One morning on the way to work she asked her father for a raise. "I said, 'Well, you know this is the second summer I'm working for you, and you're paying me the same amount of money that you did last summer.' And back then you were making about $3 an hour, so I was asking for like $3.25 or something. He stopped the car and he said, 'If you don't like working and getting what you're getting, you can take the train home and forget about working.'" She kept working. "It reinforced everything about him--that business was business, and he had to treat everybody fairly."

She adds, "It's different seeing someone at home and seeing someone at work, because he's quite different in both environments. At work he is just so motivated and so involved in what he does and is so focused on his work that he tunes everything out--personal issues, whatever. And then once he gets home it's a total reverse. He's able to switch gears and then kind of relax and be himself as a person. He separates the two very well. I think he had to do that because we've had family members work at Gamma. Between my brother and his son-in-law and cousins and uncle, he had to treat everyone equally."

In 1969, Kokuzian's future husband, Varouj, had moved from Jerusalem to Chicago with his parents, who'd grown up with Leb in the Armenian compound. Leb gave Varouj a summer job and daily rides to and from work. Varouj started college wanting to become a dentist, but he found he preferred his part-time job at Gamma. "So I wound up staying in it," he says. "And Jack kinda liked me, because I reminded him of himself when he was younger. I loved the business so much, and I wanted to learn so much, and I wanted to learn everything so fast. He taught me how to do proof sheets, he put me in spotting one year, he put me in processing. Then one day I said, 'Jack, it's time for me to print.' He says, 'Oh, you need a few years for that.' I said, 'Just give me a chance. Let me do it.'" Varouj bugged other printers at the lab to let him practice until Leb relented. "Jack gave me negatives, said, 'Go ahead, print.' I printed one. He said, 'Mmm, not bad. But you still need a lot of work.'"

Varouj says Leb was a moody boss, a perfectionist who expected the same from his coworkers. "I've got him really mad," Varouj says. "If something was out of focus a little bit, then Jack would say something like, 'You know, I have such good eyes that I can see a fly, when it is flying, if it's male or female.'" He laughs. "If you were late from a break he would give you a look and then he would look at the clock. He won't say nothing, but you knew exactly what he meant." But Varouj credits Leb's high expections for his own success as a black-and-white printer. "I get a lot of compliments at work from customers, and I always say I thank Jack for these compliments. He taught me everything."

Leb says much of his talent is innate. "I have a feeling when I look at scenery or a photograph or a painting I can see things better than a normal person can see," he says. "It's gifted from God. I can see things, and I can tell if I do this it will look much better to other people." He also credits his own teachers and years of practice for his command of rare skills, which he has taught Varouj and other Gamma printers, especially his Swedish boss's trick of bleaching parts of photographs with potassium ferrous cyanide. "When I first came to this country nobody knew about it," he says. "The people that do now, most of them, they learned it from me. They worked for me. I teached them, I trained them. So some of them, they still use it now. Some of the people that worked with me for Gamma--two, three of them--they know. Now they're not as good as I am, but they do a good job."

When Pallas sold Gamma in 1972, Leb socked away his $200,000 share of the sale to pay for college for his kids and continued to work at Gamma as its vice president and chief printer. He continued to attract a dedicated following of photographers, many of whom came for his free advice and his willingness to help them out. "You know how poor photographers are," he says. "I gave them breaks. Let's say the guy came in for a job and said, 'Jack, I can't afford to pay you except for this. If you do this job for me, next time I will pay you for another job.'"

When Leb left Gamma in 1995 he found that after a lifetime of working overtime he missed being busy. He had a couple of months of restless leisure, then jumped at the suggestion of Elie Berkman, a longtime customer, that the two set up their own lab. When Berkman first visited Gamma in 1970 he had more enthusiasm than talent behind the camera. "I began learning and teaching myself," he says. "Jack was the one who critiqued me all the time. He was vicious. Oh God, he cut me to pieces." But, Berkman adds, "Always he was so patient with me, and I had so many questions. When photographers come to him and he sees a potential--and the photographer doesn't see his own potential, Jack sees it--he begins to suggest ideas. 'Why don't you try that way and try that way?' Then they come back to him, and [he says], 'Oh, that's really good. But you made a mistake here.' Things begin to happen, and the photographers begin to realize that they're really good. In essence, Jack nurses them into photography and then he makes them into a professional photographer."

Berkman and Leb called their lab Polaris, and the plan was that Leb would develop black-and-white prints for a select group of his former Gamma customers, including Archie Lieberman, who'd called Leb at home shortly after he left Gamma and asked for his help in preparing an upcoming exhibit. Leb was also supposed to print Berkman's photos of China, Israel, and America, which were to be turned into three books.

Word spread among photographers around the country that Leb was back in business, and soon he was again working 40 to 50 hours a week filling orders for more than 50 photographers from the U.S. and abroad. Berkman says he sometimes resents that his books get put on hold while Leb fills other orders, but he believes Leb's unique talents should be shared. "He's not a printer, he's a painter--he paints with light," Berkman says. "His visual memory is so amazing. He remembers photographs he developed 30 years ago for Hauser or for Archie. He remembers how many seconds burned or dodged on this side or that side."

Though a growing number of photographers use only digital film, Polaris has plenty of customers. The phone number isn't even in the book.

As Leb's successor at Gamma--which the new owners are trying to get people to call Photobition-Chicago--Varouj says he's adopting his father-in-law's habit of working 50- to 60-hour weeks. "Unfortunately," he says. "I always said, 'I want to be like Jack, but I want to work smarter'--meaning less time and making the same amount of money. But the demand is so high that we need to put in so many hours. There's a lot of pressure in this business."

He oversees a staff of 15 hand printers, ten fewer than worked under Leb. He says Photobition-Chicago directs many customers to its cheaper digital and machine-printing services for both color and black and white. He's been hearing for years about the eventual demise of hand printing, but he still sees plenty of demand for hand-printed black-and-white photos destined for book publishers, exhibits, museums, and family photo albums. "Hand printing, it's not gonna last, and I should be learning computers and all that," he says. "But if it's slowing down, I sure don't see it. I can't keep up with the work."

Marc Hauser says he often scans images to show clients and publishers, but his final prints are always done by hand. "When I deal with book publishers, I give them all my original prints and they scan them," he says. "At some point maybe they'll ask for transparencies or digital. Some things I get called for, they say, 'Send us digital files,' but very rarely. For a whole book that I'm doing, they ask for the prints. I think there'll always be a group of people that will want film. For my own stuff, it'll always be a real photographic print."

Leb, who doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon, says he's confident the art of hand printing black-and-white photos will outlast him and his proteges. "There is film that they shoot, 3200 ASA, 1600 ASA--these are films that you can't put through machines. It needs to be processed by hand," he says. "Now maybe there's more color than black and white--it's everything done by computer now in color. But still, there is enough business for black and white. You can make a good living in black and white. It depends how good you are."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Elie Berkman.


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