Issue #131  7/23/2007
Weltanschauung/Worldview: The Photography of Leonard Freed

By Noel Chanan


The exhibition at the Musée de L'Elysée-Lausanne continues until September 2nd and then transfers to the Fotomuseum, The Hague, where it runs from October 6 through January 13, 2008, then to C/O Berlin, where it runs June-August 2008.

The exhibition is accompanied by a large format book, providing superb full-page reproductions of all 250 images featured in the show, as well as essays by William A. Ewing and Wim van Sinderen, and an interview with Freed edited from audio recordings by Nathalie Herschdorfer. The book is published by Steidl, 2007, pp. 311, hardback, ISBN 978-3-86521-463-8; email: mail@steidl.de ; www.steidlville.com ; www.steidl.de ; phone: +49-551-49-60-60.

The latest in a wide-ranging succession of exhibitions at Lausanne's Musée de L'Elysée, under the directorship of William Ewing, features the work of the American-born photojournalist, Leonard Freed. Intended as a retrospective of a lifetime in photography the show, under the title "Worldview", became, alas, a eulogy for the photographer, who succumbed to cancer a half-year before it opened, although the near-final selection of the 250 images on exhibit had been accomplished through a long lead period of close collaboration with Freed.

For my wife and myself the vernissage was a personal and emotional affair, for the photographer had been a much-valued friend since the late 1960s. At that earlier time my wife, June Stanier, was picture editor of the Sunday Times magazine, and Freed, based in Amsterdam, with his German-born wife, Brigitte, then his manager, and--for reasons of economy--his self-taught (and very expert) printer, came over to London on the look-out for assignments. Freed was still struggling to establish himself--money was never a very high priority but he did have a family to feed--and magazine work was erratic and hard to come by. Some minor commissions followed, but the real breakthrough came in 1972, by which time the peripatetic Freed had re-established himself in New York, and June commissioned a major photo essay on the violence that notoriously dogged the streets of the city. The essay generated powerful and disturbing imagery; produced outraged reactions in a New York that was in denial; became the basis of an exhibition at London's Photographer's Gallery; and eventually led on to Freed's book "Police Work" (1980), one of his signature works.

Leonard Freed was born in 1929, just as the first mass-produced high-quality miniature camera, the Leica, began to roll off the production line in Wetzlar. Alongside the development of the kind of high-speed presses that would be capable of printing quality picture magazines, the miniature camera ushered in the era of the photojournalist. Quick, silent in operation, unobtrusive, with fast optics using available light, the Leica would become the camera of choice for successive generations of the new profession (including Freed, never seen without his, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, an early inspiration) who sought out the in-depth human story that lay beyond the sensational Speed Graphic hold-the-front-page, flash-lit picture.

The persuasive phrase "The Decisive Moment", chosen for the English-language version of the first book by Cartier-Bresson (the man who became the popular face of photojournalism), more or less hijacked photojournalism. It seemed to indicate a paradigm image that made further images redundant, "decisive" implying also "definitive", and always carefully defined within the perfect frame. Cartier-Bresson's work and his philosophy of the photograph stand on their own infinite merits, but they do not address themselves in any real sense to Freed's work, of which he himself said: "I don't want the perfect image…because the imperfect detail gives life to a photograph. If we look for too much perfection we lose vitality". Yet, he said, "I am conscious about the movements of people in the frame. I have an innate understanding of visual forms". Freed believed, and said of himself, that photographers are born not made.

Freed's vast opus (he left behind an archive of a million negatives) is reflected in another enduring phrase that seized the public imagination: "La Condition Humaine", translated as "Man's Fate", the title of André Malraux's great novel of the 1930s. The brevity of the exposure makes a decisive moment of every frame, but where Cartier-Bresson excludes, Freed's photographs reach out to each other. They are about and embrace the nature and structure of communities, and in this sense have an explicitly political and philosophical content, in a tradition of (frequently disappointed) liberal humanism, which Freed acknowledged.

But they are also the work of an artist (for that is how Freed defined himself) responding to his own instincts and seeking the answers to his own urgent questions. Freed, the American-born son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, returned repeatedly to one of his earliest preoccupations as a photographer and as an individual: that of Jewish identity and in what sense he belonged (or did not) to the inherited traditions. Ultimately there was no answer, not least perhaps because, paradoxically, as an artist he necessarily remained perpetually on the outside, the observer of whatever it was he was seeking to understand by depicting it.

All of Freed's most significant work is about community and about belonging, even "Police Work", in which junkies and prostitutes, lurid transvestites, brutalised women, mafia slayings and the indelible image of dead bloated fingers clawing at a steel grill that interposed itself between their owner's life and his death, are tempered by the ordinariness of a policeman's family at home at Christmas or by the pool in summer; or in the joyful spontaneity of a uniformed policewoman caught at play with neighborhood street children.

In one of his essays on literature in "The Curtain", the Czech novelist, Milan Kundera, elaborates on a particular literary relationship that fortuitously and perfectly describes also the essence of Freed's photography and his relationship with his subjects, showing "…not merely the difficult or vulgar side of life (but) also a certain beauty, till then neglected: the beauty of modest sentiments…fondness tinged with familiarity…a new prosaic beauty".

Freed's last words, to his wife Brigitte, at his bedside, were: "No more pictures". Let his work speak for itself. One comes away from the exhibition with the conviction that the "certain beauty" will last, and that Freed's place in the pantheon of photojournalism is assured.

Noel Chanan is a retired maker of documentary films, including above a dozen on photography and early cinema. He continues to work as a consultant and writer on photography. Chanan's biography of the English aristocrat-photographer, 'William, Earl of Craven and the Art of Photography ', was published in 2006. He was the auction expert on the two Craven's sales. He is currently working on a book on photography in WWII India.