Benjamin M. (Ben) Lifson, critic, curator and photographer, died July 3 in Pittsburgh. He was 72. From 1977 to 1982, Lifson was the photography critic at New York’s Village Voice, a position in which he disseminated his sharp, eloquent opinions at a point when the medium was rising in prestige and value.
Ever cognizant of the history of photography within the history of culture in general, Lifson often contextualized the medium in relationship to painting and film. About a Lucas Samaras photograph, he wrote, “Emerging from a rumpled sheet piled high on his crouching back, [Samaras] offers himself to Bosch. For the Mannerists he is naked, supine, and foreshortened.”
During his career, Lifson wrote for Art in America, October, Artforum, Art on Paper and Art News. He also published catalogue essays on Samaras, John Coplans, Garry Winogrand, Frank Gohlke, André Kertész, Eugéne Atget and others. Though he had completed a major volume on the history of photography, it remains unpublished.
Born in Minneapolis in 1941, Lifson received his BA from the University of Minnesota and an MA from Yale University in English literature. An influential professor of the history of photography, he taught at Yale, Harvard, Bard College and the International Center of Photography in New York, among his numerous positions. He also studied photography at North Carolina Central University and filmmaking at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In 1970, he founded the photography department at the California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles. Though he never achieved the renown for his photographs that he did for his criticism, he appeared in numerous group shows and for a time worked as a freelance journalistic photographer, publishing from 1965 to 1980 in such magazines as Look, Ramparts, Saturday Review and New York.
There will be a memorial service for Lifson at Howard Greenberg Gallery on Sept. 7.