February 1, 2003 was one of those Saturday mornings when most of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing. As entertainment editor for the Tyler Morning Telegraph at the time, I was suffering through an early-morning critics' screening of "Final Destination 2." The film itself was singularly unremarkable; the second installment in that interminable, interchangeable series of supernatural slasher movies that still refuses to go gentle into that good night.
I only remember the film because of what happened while I was in the screening. Unbeknownst to me, the Space Shuttle Columbia had disintegrated on its re-entry course, and Tyler was at the epicenter of hundreds of square miles of debris strewn across East Texas and western Louisiana. That was the day I met Scott Lieberman.
By the time I arrived at the newsroom, the buzz already was deafening: a local cardiologist had managed to get a shot of the Columbia disaster in progress, and was bringing it in to see if we wanted to publish it. "Oh great," I thought, "Some yokel popped off a grainy, blurred-out Polaroid with his thumb in the corner of the frame – and we'll have to run it Page 1 because it's the only shot of this disaster anyone managed to get."
But then the bearded, gregarious figure of Scott M. Lieberman, M.D. bounded into the TMT newsroom with his Canon D60 in hand. What he showed us was technically accomplished, emotionally charged and haunting, yet strangely beautiful – an image that instantly would become indelible.
We were the paper of record on an international news story. We now had the photo (and the Associated Press wanted it). We had to get it right.
That level of performance pressure tends to exacerbate the already-bizarre behavior of most journalists. We must have published five editions that night, encompassing no fewer than a dozen makeovers. As a colleague and I scoured the building for our senior editor in the course of one of those countless restarts, our composing manager told us, "He down there yellin' at the press." We took that comment to mean our boss was berating the pressroom personnel (not an uncommon occurrence) – until minutes later, when we discovered our legendarily mercurial newsroom chief pacing the floor, arms akimbo, hysterically bellowing at the actual physical machinery of the printing press. That's the kind of night it was. But we did get it right.
Eleven years, a Pulitzer Prize nomination and thousands of published images later, Doc (as I've known him since that day) is a fixture in the world of photography.
Over the years I grew to know Doc better the more I began to depend on him, particularly on Saturday nights when scheduling a staff photographer to shoot anything but sports was almost farcically impossible. In my last four years at the Tyler paper, I would guess he shot 85 percent of the photos accompanying stories I filed on East Texas Symphony Orchestra concerts and various other performances at the UT Tyler Cowan Center. So it's fitting for me that a museum exhibition of his work would open in tandem with an ETSO performance, highlighting his images in a multimedia program during the March 22 "On Nature" concert at the Cowan Center.
And as a direct participant in the cathartic chaos of Feb. 1, 2003, I'm particularly proud to be on board at the Tyler Museum of Art as we prepare to launch the first-ever solo exhibition devoted to Doc's accomplishments behind the lens: Scott M. Lieberman, M.D.: At the Vantage Point. As part of a historic community partnership with ETSO and the TMA, the exhibition previews for Museum members and ETSO patrons March 22, and opens to the public March 23.
The iconic, Pulitzer-nominated Shuttle image forms the centerpiece of more than 75 selections from Doc's impressive body of work, vetted under the artistic eye of our guest curator Robert Langham. The abiding link among the images is Lieberman's unique ability to seize the opportunity and extract a memorable image from almost any situation, without compromising the fundamentals of composition. Applying the same level of exacting standards to his photography that he devotes to his career as a cardiovascular surgeon, he approaches nothing half-heartedly.
Crouching behind barricades, maneuvering through fences, hanging upside-down from window ledges, crawling through mud or simply charming the pants off the necessary people to gain access, he does what it takes to arrive at the vantage point – and capture the moment.
Photojournalism is not tantamount to making cheese sandwiches. It requires a balancing act of opportunism, technical acumen – and artistry. Margaret Bourke-White had it, Annie Leibovitz has it, Scott Lieberman has it.
If you think photojournalism can't be fine art, grab a ticket for On Nature March 22, stop by the TMA between March 23 and July 13 for a tour of At the Vantage Point – and give us a chance to prove you wrong. See you soon.