By Shawn Hartley Hancock
MUSCLE BOY, Harlem, NY 1963 © Leonard Freed/Magnum
Ralph Brill, owner of the Brill Gallery
in the Eclipse Mill Building
in North Adams, Mass., calls it “probably the most important photography exhibit in 2016.” Leonard Freed’s Civil Rights Photographs of the 1960s, he says, are still more than relevant today, and all the more impressive since they were taken at the dawn of photojournalism. They’re part of an exhibit from the 1960s that Cornell Capa, now president of Magnum, pulled together and called "The Concerned Photographer" as a way of honoring his older brother, the much-heralded war photographer Robert Capa, who was killed by a land mine in Indochina in 1954.
The original exhibit, which includes work by Gordon Parks, Bruce Davidson and Leonard Freed, documents a host of world events, especially the turmoil of the American civil rights movement. Considering the current events of our day, it seems quite timely to bring back the collection. Brill has located and assembled as many of the original artworks from that show as possible, reprising, as it were, the original exhibit and book for a new generation. On view through August 21, the exhibit will heavily feature the work of documentary photojournalist Leonard Freed, whose widow, Birgitte, and daughter, Susannah Elka, will help put Freed’s work in historical context at their talk and reception on Saturday, August 13, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the Brill Gallery.
BROOKLYN WEDDING DANCE, 1954 © Leonard Freed/Magnum
Photojournalism wasn’t really a “thing” until World War II, when cameras became smaller and lighter, and film became more light sensitive. These technological improvements allowed photographers to capture important dramatic moments as they happened – and like never before. This brand of photojournalism, which sought to educate and change the world as much as document world events, grew more powerful and impactful in the post-war years in the hands of masters like Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour, who founded Magnum, the photographic cooperative, in 1947. These giants of photography, who blended reporting and art, set the standard for all modern photojournalism.
“Ultimately photography is about who you are. It's the seeking of truth in relation to yourself. And seeking truth becomes a habit,” Freed said about his photography. Over a long career as a photojournalist (Freed died in 2006), he captured important and pivotal moments in social history, including black men packed into a prison cell in New Orleans, black youths playing on a hot summer day in Harlem, and Martin Luther King leaning out the back of his limousine to shake hands with admirers at the March on Washington. Upward of 30 works by Freed are in the current exhibit.
Ralph Brill. © Roman Iwasiwka.
The timing couldn’t be better, considering the current state of race relations in the US and its parallel to the turmoil documented by Freed and his contemporaries fifty years ago. “For most photojournalists, the details of their work and its context die when they do,” Brill says. “We’re so fortunate to have Birgitte and Susannah coming to speak about Leonard and provide that context. Birgitte was truly Leonard’s partner – she printed many of his photos and knows the 'back story.' She and Susannah are doing a great job of keeping Leonard’s legacy alive.”
Photography became Freed's means of exploring societal violence and racial discrimination. “While most photojournalists were taking pictures of bombed-out buildings after the war, Freed never did that,” Brill says. “He took photos of people.” Freed did his share of documenting post-war Europe, however, especially Amsterdam and The Netherlands in the 1950s. “He followed and photographed a few surviving Jewish families in Amsterdam,” Brill says. The Jewish community there had suffered the greatest losses during World War II – upwards of 85-percent – more than any other European city.
In addition to re-assembling as many of the photos as possible from the original Concerned Photographers exhibit (the original book will also be re-published), Brill is organizing a book of Freed’s photos documenting the March on Washington, in the context of the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement in America. Many of these seminal photos are already in the collections of the National Archives.
"The Concerned Photographer"
Works by documentary photographer Leonard Freed
July 30 - August 21
Reception with Brigitte Freed: Saturday, Aug. 13, 6-8 p.m.
at Eclipse Mill
243 Union Street, North Adams, MA