Leonard “Len” Gittleman, 89, of Watertown, Massachusetts
September 23, 1932 in Brooklyn - April 5, 2022 in Boston
Len was born on September 23, 1932 in Brooklyn, New York to Dr. Joseph Gittleman, MD (originally of Pinsk, Russia) and Esther (Cohen) Gittleman of Brooklyn. Len and older brother, Ed, grew up amid a large cast of uncles, aunts, and cousins, and enjoyed many memorable gatherings at their uncle Max’s New Jersey farm.
Len became interested in photography during his first year at Midwood High School, with the encouragement of his science and art teachers. Summer days were spent traversing the city by subway, camera in hand. At the age of 15 Len won a city-wide photography contest for high school students.
Len studied at the Institute of Design in Chicago, originally called “The New Bauhaus,” graduating in 1954 with a BS in Photography. With professors including Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, Len developed into an innovative and talented artist. For one of Siskind’s courses, Len and his classmates documented significant Louis Sullivan buildings in Chicago that were soon to be demolished. This exhibit was later published in book form as Aaron Siskind and Louis Sullivan: The Institute of Design Photo Section Project. Len freelanced as a photographer and cinematographer during his college summers, and learned a great deal from the film producers he worked with as cameraman for the national television series “This is Our Town.”
After graduating, Len served 3 years in the Navy on the USS Miller DD-535 as the ship’s Communications and Operations Officer, and published a crew year book as the ship’s unofficial photographer. During this time he saw much of the world, including the Mediterranean and Middle East, and also whetted his appetite for all things nautical.
Len moved to midtown Manhattan and began as a freelance commercial photographer and filmmaker, for clients that included the Museum of Modern Art, The New York Times, Life Magazine, and the graphic design firm Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar. In collaboration with former classmate Michael Train, they produced Whirligig, a short film about the Coney Island Carousel, which opened the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and won that year’s Short Film Palme d’Or.
From 1963 to 1975, Len served as Lecturer on Photography at Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. He designed and oversaw the installation of the College’s first photographic darkroom, and taught courses in photography, film, video, and photo silkscreen. As a teacher, Len had a profound influence on many of his students, a number of whom became artists of note, and who maintained close friendships with him throughout the rest of his life.
While at Harvard, Len continued his freelance work. Working with Cambridge Seven, he designed photographic murals for the MBTA Arlington Street station. In 1971 Len was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for Experimental Photography and Graphics, which he used to create a limited edition of 10 silkscreen prints derived from photographs made during NASA’s Apollo 15 moon flight. Toward the end of this period, Len began to shoot live and time-lapse footage for his film about the construction of Gund Hall, which would house Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Building Gund Hall was screened at numerous venues, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Columbia University Film Festival, where it won a prize in the Built Environment category.
Soon after arriving at Harvard, Len settled in an old Victorian house in Watertown, where he would live for the next 55 years, and raise 3 children, Hannah and Joe (from first marriage to Susan Butler), and, with Carol Baldassari, their son, Max. Len took great pride in the home, and was always working on one project or another, frequently devising clever solutions to the challenges of owning a 100 year old house. Together with his wife Carol, they hosted family and friends at countless events, such as annual Halloween parties, Hanukkah latke dinners, and elaborate Christmas celebrations. Len’s generosity and welcoming spirit endeared him to so many.
After leaving Harvard, Len focused on his work as a self-employed artist, with an emphasis on film, video, graphic design, and multimedia products. From 1977-1984 he was commissioned by the Urban Investment and Development Company of Chicago to make two documentaries about the building of Copley Place in Boston using specialized time-lapse cinematography. One explored the complexities of the building’s structural design, while the other documented the design and installation of Dimitri Hadzi’s water sculpture. Len’s lifelong interests in technology, and science education, space exploration, and the sea remained evident in his work with clients including Avid Technology, RiverDeep, BBN Corporation, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
In addition to a long list of solo and group exhibitions, Len’s work can be found in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Smithsonian Institution, Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, the deCordova Museum, and the Harvard Film Archive. Len’s significant and award-winning films over the years included The Press, Requiem, Peelings, Whirligig, Building Gund Hall, and Building Rhythms: the Construction of Copley Place.
Len loved sailing his Bristol 32’ sloop “Whitecap” on month-long excursions up the coast of Maine with Carol, or mooring in Great Salt Pond, Block Island. Len grew up following the Brooklyn Dodgers but later became a diehard Red Sox fan and cherished watching games with friends and family. Len and Carol supported the local epicurean arts scene with weekly explorations of new restaurants with good friends. Len’s joy of life was profoundly deepened by the dogs and cats he loved over the years. Even in his last weeks, Len continued to work on creative projects, and could not help but find and document visual inspiration all around him.
Len is survived by his wife Carol Baldassari, and children Hannah (Jason Ruckdeschel) Gittleman, Joe (Angie) Gittleman, Max (Erika Reyes) Gittleman. He also leaves his nephew Neal (Lisa Fry) Gittleman of Dayton Ohio. Len was predeceased by his father Joseph (1967), mother Esther (2002), brother Edwin (1996), and sister-in-law Rosalyn (2016).
Services will be held on June 21 at Bigelow Chapel, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Chapel doors open at 12:30 for the 1:00 service.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Mosesian Center for the Arts (https://www.mosesianarts.org/), Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America (https://myasthenia.org/), or the charity of your choice.