Leif Skoogfors was the first photographer I assisted just out of college, the first to give me a chance – a brilliant, passionate, empathic, and very tall Swede with a lethally wry sense of humor. Leif (rhymes with “safe”) passed me some of my first assignments, connected with me with some of my first clients and has been a supportive mentor and dear friend every since. I asked to photograph him prior to his relocation to Marblehead, MA from Pennsylvania. He graciously agreed, despite his dislike of being on the other side of the lens. I wanted to photograph Leif – to capture who I know to be a sensitive, caring, heroic man who has witnessed tragedy not only professionally as a photojournalist, but throughout his personal life. Despite this darkness he continues to witness, he never stops seeing the good in things. For example, he has three cats: Twist, who he rescued from a tornado site while with FEMA, Rosco, an abandoned all black kitten who hung around his back porch in Ardmore – Leif’s wife Joyce sang to Rosco to get him used to them, and Happy Meal – named by the shelter who ran out of names so they simply starting naming the kittens after items on the McDonalds menu. Generous with his time, Leif once insisted on taking my daughter, Ruby, to high tea at the Four Seasons, something they both enjoyed immensely and certainly a sight worth seeing.
Leif grew up during turbulent times, which no doubt developed his awareness of politics, social action, and international events. Leif’s father left Sweden three months after the start of the Second World War. He had worked briefly in Germany and seen the destruction of the Weimar Republic’s economy and the rise of Hitler. He wanted his family to be safe and his father once said, “I don’t want to see bombs dropping on baby Leif.”
While born in Delaware, his family moved back to Sweden during his primary school years before returning back to the US to the Philadelphia area due to fear of war after the Russian blockade in Berlin. Before graduating from high school, Leif cut classes to cover a Quaker led march protesting the open air testing of nuclear weapons and it became his first magazine assignment for LIFE.
“Skoogie,” as our common friend Jimmy Colton refers to Leif as, has covered struggles in Northern Ireland, Nicaragua and El Salvador and has worked as a photojournalist in Bosnia, and Haiti. He’s photographed presidents, covered military special operations forces, spent time with the Al-Fatah Palestinians, and worked as the photography editor at Greenpeace USA – where yours truly received assignments. Prior to retiring, he shot federally declared disasters while at FEMA. He also taught at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, University of the Arts, Drexel University and founded the BFA photography program at Moore College of Art where he helped to negotiate contracts during a strike. Leif is a champion of artist rights and has supported the industry throughout his career in this capacity.
While this is merely a fraction of Leif’s resume and story, it’s clear he is a fascinating man and I’m glad to call him a close friend. I wanted to capture Leif in his current world. Even in his time of semi retirement, the years of war and conflict are still with him. I asked Leif to reflect upon the photos after he held out from seeing them for over a year.
“I’m very sensitive, as many people are, to seeing myself in photographs. I’m all too aware of my limitations due to aging, the accidents, and concussions I’ve endured – which make me feel very vulnerable. My reactions to Dave’s portraits are mixed and somewhat confusing, partially because whenever I look in a mirror I see me as I was. I never really acknowledged that the life I led may have affected me; I’d just done a job like everyone else does.
[Dave’s] photographs give a hint of what I’ve felt as I dealt with the tensions and conflicts I faced. They show more of the inner me, one a bit older and a bit more tired, but still ready to face the world. They aren’t just photographs of the surface, they go deep beyond the surface. And I find pride in what I’ve undergone and optimism for my future.”
-Leif Skoogfors on Dave’s portraits of him
Leif documented social and military issues for over 50 years. A US Army Veteran himself, he enjoyed a close working relationship with The United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM). He has photographed Civil Rights, anti-war movements, and international conflict in countless countries. His work has been published for decades in TIME Magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, amongst others. He has exhibited in numerous museums, including the permanent collections of the George Eastman House, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Princeton University, and the Corcoran Gallery. He has since settled into his new home in Marblehead, MA with his wife Joyce and his three cats: Rosco, Twist, and Happy Meal.