Obituary: Joan Liftin (1935-2023) leaves us her legacy
Photo by Joan Liftin

Obituary: Joan Liftin (1935-2023) leaves us her legacy

Profile photo of Adriana Teresa Letorney
Adriana Teresa Letorney
Founder & CEO based in Stowe
With great sadness, we announce the passing of Joan Liftin, legendary photographer, photo book editor, and teacher for many years. A creator led by her imagination and instinct, Joan lived and breathed photography. She was surrounded by the most genuine, honest, and selfless movements of photographers starting with her loving husband Charles Harbutt and Sylvia Plachy, Jeff Jacobson, Alex Webb, and Bridgitte Grignet, amongst others. Joan will be remembered as an artist who quietly shared her life through unique, in-depth images and photo books, some featuring her work, many celebrating through editing the work of others. She will be missed sorely.
Joan is the author of three photo books Drive-Ins (2004), Marseille (2015) and Water For Tears (2018). She was chair of the documentary program at the International Center of Photography (from l988 to 2000) and the director of Magnum Photos library. She edited many books, including Mary Ellen Mark's Falkland Road, Charles Harbutt's Departures and Arrivals, Magnum's Paris (with Inge Morath) and Andrea Stern's Inheritance and Dog Days. In 2017, her archive was acquired by the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.

Obituary: Joan Liftin (1935-2023) leaves us her legacy
Photo by Joan Liftin

Personal Reflection from Visura founder Adriana Teresa Letorney 
I was lucky to call Joan Liftin a mentor and my dear friend. I loved Joan. I visited her throughout the years at her New York apartment, where she and Charlie lived until the end of their days. She also came to Vermont, while my family and I were on voluntary exile from New York working on re-envisioning a better ecosystem for freelancers worldwide.

Charlie passed away in 2015, but she always mentioned him when we were together. 

They were quite the love story, and their love for photography was their forever bond. In our industry, it is one of the few real love stories that has yet to be told, one of two photography legends, who as individuals and as a married couple influenced the lives of so many photographers, photo editors, curators, and thinkers at Magnum, ICP, Visura and beyond. 

Charlie and Joan led by example, a life filled with love, tears, and laughter.

Obituary: Joan Liftin (1935-2023) leaves us her legacy
Charles Harbutt by Joan Liftin

When Charlie and Joan were both still with us, I visited them often. For hours, I listened to their journey as photographers, teachers, and leaders. They would put me to bed with their stories, literally!  

I knew I was in the presence of history—and I was honored to witness their continuous conversations showing reverence for the real masters of photography—those who seek to respect the perspective and transcend the surface of the image while diving into the depth, soul, and intention behind it.

Together, Joan and Charlie stood for media literacy of the highest caliber—and once Charlie departed, Joan continued her work until her last breath. Few understood the depth of what advocating for media literacy really means and the sacrifices they made in the name of that belief and the work.

What shines or becomes a trend is not always authentic, and what is authentic does not always shine in popularity. It is the price of caring, maybe at times too much, Joan would say. It is also the dichotomy that has made so many incredible visual storytellers leave the editorial and agency world—to navigate the realms of freelancing. 

Lately, I don't think the decision to become a freelancer is just about sustainability. These days, I actually believe it is also about self-love, respect, and integrity.

Obituary: Joan Liftin (1935-2023) leaves us her legacy
Joan Liftin Archives

While the internet primarily focuses on popular trends rather than unique, in-depth visual storytelling, the real movements in the media industry are led by those who do not seek fame and followers. Like Joan and Charlie, many become educators and freelancers to expand the parameters of visual storytelling.

Joan was a natural teacher. She had no ego. She exuded integrity and respect. Joan stood for something in her lifetime: authenticity. She was grounded and real. She knew she wasn't perfect, and she had come to terms with that, and could be honest about her truth. I learned so much from her.

During my 20s, I walked away from my pursuit to become a photographer or journalist, which was why I had left Puerto Rico and my family. Instead, I turned to entrepreneurialism when I realized there were deeply discriminatory barriers of entry for diverse professionals looking to work in the industry. I wanted to contribute to the movements that were trying to identify the challenges, gaps, and solutions to address and break these barriers. So, I ventured.

Throughout my professional career, there have been moments when I have thought about stopping or letting go of the need to empower freelancers worldwide with an alternative solution to agencies so that they might connect with buyers directly.

Every time, Joan quietly walked beside me. She didn't say much. She listened until I was ready to listen.

"Keep going," she always said.

"I will, Joan. I will," I replied.

Obituary: Joan Liftin (1935-2023) leaves us her legacy
Photo by Joan Liftin

Charlie and Joan made the world a better place.

You see, Charlie and Joan became freelancers and died as freelancers. Their work inspired me to empower, support, recognize and celebrate the work of freelance visual storytellers worldwide.

When the world turned to the internet, two legends were barely seen because they decided not to be represented by agencies or play with social media platforms. Their courage opened my eyes, and inspired me to ask questions. In time, I learned that like them, 
freelancers worldwide were producing incredible work that was not being seen because publishers and brands were looking only through stock agencies when sourcing content and talent. Meanwhile. there remains a growing community of freelancers producing unique, compelling work independently from these platforms.

After years of research, our assumptions were validated. It was time to do the work. 

The current platforms that power the sourcing, licensing, and distribution of content across the internet make it difficult for freelancers to share their unique work unless they adhere to traditional agency models or social media platforms. An alternative was and remains necessary if we want to empower and elevate premium visuals across the internet.

I was too young to introduce Charlie to Visura. He passed away the year we pivoted from into However, I had the honor to introduce Visura to Joan, and from the beginning, 
she believed in the vision.

Obituary: Joan Liftin (1935-2023) leaves us her legacy
Joan Liftin Archives

Joan, I will miss you. I love you, my friend. I am so grateful to you. You were a warrior.

Thank you for teaching me about the fundamentals of photo editing. Thank you for teaching me about what really matters in visual storytelling and photojournalism—which surpasses popularity, awards, and sensationalist imagery. 

Thank you for reminding me to continue working on Visura—even when I was being laughed at and put down by others. Thank you for being there for me from the beginning, and throughout all these years. 

What a gift you gave me—the gift of friendship in this industry. 

Obituary: Joan Liftin (1935-2023) leaves us her legacy
Joan Liftin Archives

Your legacy lives on. 

I am not going anywhere. I am not going to stop either. There is a lot I need to do, to do better and be better—and your belief in me will forever be a guiding light. I see the difference between stock and premium visuals because you challenged my parameters. I see the impact the difference between scrolling and actually observing has on the images we choose to distribute across the internet, and the impact they have on the lives of others.

You were an example of a life with purpose. You made the world a better place without screaming. You are an example of humility.  I am a better person because of you and I am sure, I am not alone. You will be sorely missed.

Thank you, Joan. I love you. Thank you for being a true friend.

I will miss you but I will see you again.

Until then, with love, always...


Obituary: Joan Liftin (1935-2023) leaves us her legacy
Photo by Joan Liftin
Obituary: Joan Liftin (1935-2023) leaves us her legacy
Photo by Joan Liftin
Obituary: Joan Liftin (1935-2023) leaves us her legacy
Copyright Adriana Teresa Letorney 2024
Updated Jan 2023
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