Leo Holub, distinguished photographer and founder of Stanford’s photography program, died at his home in San Francisco on April 27. He was 93.

Leo Holub portrait

Leo Holub (1916–2010) (Image credit: Neil MacDonald)

Holub taught photography at Stanford from 1970 to 1980 and was a friend of noted photographers Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham. He was known for documenting San Francisco’s changing landscape, cityscape and small nature, as well as Stanford students and architecture.

“He was a fantastic, generous spirit,” said Joel Leivick, Holub’s successor and photography professor in the Department of Art and Art History. “He was my mentor and someone I always held out as an example of how to live your life.”

Holub was born on Nov. 15, 1916, on a bee farm in Decatur, Ark. His family followed his traveling blacksmith father to Stillwell, Okla., then to Oakland, Calif., where they lived until Holub was 17. His mother noted his love of drawing when he was a young child and gave him his first camera when he turned 14.

Holub attended the Art Institute of Chicago in 1935 with money he had saved working as a blacksmith and sawmill apprentice in gold mines. The next year, he attended the California School of Fine Arts, where he studied painting, life drawing, lithography, anatomy and art history. He then studied design with famed artist and industrial designer Joseph Sinel.

It was during this time that Holub met his future wife, fashion illustrator Florence Mickelson. They married in 1940. When their first son was born in 1942, Holub was inspired to pursue photography. He couldn’t stop snapping photos of “the most beautiful baby in the world.”

During World War II, Holub put his design career aside to be a ship’s rigger for the Navy. After the war, Holub worked as a book designer and illustrator, and then a press foreman and architectural designer. He taught drawing part time at California School of Fine Arts in 1956 and attended workshops in Yosemite with Ansel Adams, with whom he became lifelong friends. He later designed a book of Adams’ Hawaii pictures.

Coming to Stanford

Holub first came to Stanford in 1960, when he worked in the university planning office. He supervised the construction of a room-sized model of the university’s campus, part of Stanford’s PACE (Plan of Action for a Challenging Era) fundraising campaign. In his spare time, he photographed students all over campus.

Those photographs were the focus of Holub’s first solo photography exhibit in 1964, Stanford Seen, featuring 235 photos of students on campus. Students were so excited to see themselves in an exhibit that they set a record for show attendance at the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery.

At the request of the administration, Holub drew on skills from his previous design and building jobs and built darkroom facilities in the basement of the art gallery. He then founded the photography program in 1969. Students camped out overnight at the art office to register for his first class.

Holub’s philosophy as a teacher was to move quickly past the simple mechanics of photography to developing students’ artistic vision. He had a warm, personable teaching style that attracted hundreds of students each term.

“The photo lab was a place that you hung out. For a lot of us, that was our base at Stanford,” said former student Lorie Novak, now a professor of photography and imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“As a teacher, he was reserved and quiet and that would force you to be yourself. There was no pretense, no imposing of his style or ways of looking at things. That’s something I learned from him – how to encourage your students without imposing your own styles and tastes on them.”

Holub retired from the Department of Art in 1980 as a senior lecturer emeritus, after teaching 4,400 students in 10 years. To honor his decade of work, 14 of his former students, all accomplished photographers, exhibited their work in a 1981 exhibition called Thanks to Leo. It was organized by Anita Mozely, Stanford Museum’s first curator, and was held at the T. W. Stanford Art Gallery.

Holub’s works are compiled in two books, including Leo Holub: Photographer, published in 1982 by the Stanford Alumni Association. The Leo Holub Award in Photography was established at Stanford in 1994 for outstanding photography students.

One hundred artists

The crowning achievement of Holub’s career came long after his retirement, when he was commissioned to take portraits of more than 100 artists whose modern works were housed in the Harry and Mary Margaret Anderson Collection in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Holub traveled the country for 10 years photographing artists in their studios. He called the project “one of the highlights of my life.” The photos were exhibited at the Stanford Art Gallery in 2006 and compiled for the Andersons and for the Smithsonian.

In 2001 the Smithsonian Archives of American Art began collecting his prints, including 125 original prints from Leo Holub: Photographer, and his personal letters including those from Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and writer Wallace Stegner, founder of Stanford’s Creative Writing Program.

“He was disinclined to self-promotion,” said Paul Karlstrom, the former West Coast director of the Archives of American Art, who collected Holub’s personal papers and prints for the Smithsonian. “That doesn’t mean he didn’t believe in work, he just knew how to … put what he had to say into his beautiful photographs.”

He was always taking pictures of people, Karlstrom said, “and he ended up with a little camera so he could be like a spy.”

Holub is survived by his wife, Florence; two sons, Jan of Grass Valley and Eric of San Francisco; and a brother, Richard, of Grass Valley. A memorial service is being planned for later this year.  Contributions can be made to the “Leo Holub Fund for Photography,” a fund that will provide support for the photography program of the Art and Art History Department: c/o Elis Imboden, Department of Art and Art History, Stanford, CA 94305.

Gwyneth Dickey is an intern at the Stanford News Service.