Leonard Freed, Worldview, at the Musée de la Photographie, Charleroi, Belgium

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Leonard Freed, Bucharest, 1989, Palace Square during the Romanian revolution
Leonard Freed, Bucharest, 1989, Palace Square during the Romanian revolution

Leonard Freed, Worldview
Musée de la Photographie, Charleroi, Belgium
curated by William Ewing and Nathalie Herschdorfer, Musée de L’Elysée, Lausanne.
Book with essays by William Ewing, Wim van Sinderen, and Nathalie Herschdorfer. Lausanne: Steidl/Musée de L’Elysée, 2007.

Worldview, one of the most important exhibitions devoted to Leonard Freed, has reached Belgium, hosted by the Museum of Photography at Charleroi. Visitors will find many surprises in store for them.

Leonard Freed
Leonard Freed

Leonard Freed was born on December 23, 1929 in Brooklyn, New York into a Jewish working-class family from Eastern Europe.

At the end of the 1940s, barely twenty years old, he began to travel around Europe, and in 1954 he returned to the United States. Here, like Robert Frank and and many others, he met Edward Steichen, director at the time of the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and showed him his first works on film. In this way  he learned that photography was the right path for him to follow. During that stay in New York he photographed the life of Hassidic Jews in Brooklyn and Italian-Americans in Little Italy, where he had taken an apartment. In 1958 he moved to Amsterdam and began to photograph the local Jewish communities. He published his book, Made in Germany, in 1961. He worked at length and in a many-sided way on his own Jewish roots and on the integration with the German community, above all in the light of the recent end of the Second World War. Between 1961 and 1972 he worked with Magnum Photos as a freelance, cultivating with ever increasing dedication his personal view of social themes of special newsworthiness. In particular, during this period, he concentrated on the conditions of Afro-Americans in the United States and was a witness of the ferocious battles for the conquest of civil rights for the blacks. In this way Black in White America, one of his best-known works, was born.

In 1972 Leonard Freed became a full member of Magnum Photos and confronted a great many themes, always keeping his personal vision intact, just as Steichen had advised him at the beginning of his career. He realized a series of publications which drew attention to problems of strong social import, but at the same time they became for Freed real personal necessities, an internal need to debunk myths and legends imposed by society, above all in Police Work and Another Life. Leonard’s Freed’s career was rich in exhibitions and awards.

Worldview is to be sure the most representation of Leonard Freed’s entire oeuvre. A panoramic view which  brings together more than 200 images and which draws a detailed picture of the photographs the American photographer realized over the course of his life. In 2007, under the name Worldview two projects came to life in parallel: on the one hand a book published by Steidl with texts by William A. Ewing, Wim van Sinderen and an interview with Freed conducted by Nathalie Herschdorfer, and on the other, an exhibition of the same name, curated also by William A. Ewing, which was shown from May to September 2007 at Lausanne, from October 2007 to January 2008 at the Hague, and finally in Berlin. It opened in Belgium, at Charleroi, on January 21, 2011.

As far as the book is concerned, we can take note of a chronological organization which includes the following sections:

WIDE WORLD introduced by William A. Ewing

  • New World Soundings (1954-1956)
  • Old World Encounters (1956-1962)

AN AMERICAN IN AMSTERDAM introduced by Wim van Sinderen

  • A Black in a White World (1963-1965)
  • Old World Resurrection   (1963-1968)

WANDERING WITH A PURPOSE introduced by Nathalie Herschdorfer

  • New World Disorder  (1970-1979)
  • World Without End    (1981-2002)

Some of the images published in the book are already known to the public; others are entirely new and most definitely underline with great power Freed’s great talent.

In regard to the exhibition of the photographic prints in Worldview, it is necessary first of all to make an initial observation that the show has been installed in different ways in each of the places where it has been exhibited. An exhibition of 200 prints requires a truly large space and, for predictable architectural considerations, each museum has its one individual and unique structure. This premise implies that the same images, arranged each time in a different way, assume different forms and are reborn in new sequences and rhythms from exhibition to exhibition.

In the case of Charleroi they have been shown following a double order, in the first place chronological and then thematic, according to the country and subject of the image itself. The arrangement, following a clockwise direction from the entrance, leads the viewer in a voyage in time with Leonard Freed, and through his eyes allows him to pass through the stories of people coming from many different parts of the world.

Le Musée de la Photographie at Charleroi
Le Musée de la Photographie at Charleroi

The Museum of Photography at Charleroi is a real surprise: situated in the third most important city of Belgium, it maintains a photographic collection and archive of a sort one would not at all expect. It is the largest photographic museum in Europe, and especially active in exhibitions. The staff are young and dynamic and appears ready spend all their energies for the benefit and development of the museum. The permanently exhibited photographic works along three floors of the former convent which shelters the contemporary art center are organized in chronological order and are subdivided by century. From the dawn of photography to the works of our own times, the names which have made European history follow one another in sequence, and not only that. Strolling in the long corridors one meets Sander, and not much farther Cindy Sherman, passing by Robert Frank and Martin Parr.

The archive, moreover, not only preserves an exceptional number of prints, but also possesses a good six million negatives on film. In particular, on should take note that special attention has been paid to the Belgian tradition in photography and to all those local artists and amateurs, who in the course of those years have occupied themselves successfully with photography. To complete this already rich and varied offer, there is also a permanent collection of cameras from Polaroid to Leica, from historical Rolleiflex cameras to the latest digital discoveries.

In addition there are three temporary exhibitions on view at the same time, which are renewed every four months. This makes the Museum a place which is particularly attentive to changes at an international level, but at the same time rooted in the area and well-equipped to give proper due to the culture and formation of Belgium itself. In this rich context, together with Worldview, a small window was opened on some of the photographs taken by Leonard Freed in the days following the Marcinelle disaster in August 1956, which saw the deaths of 262 workers, of whom 136 were Italians. (The youngest was 14 and the oldest was 56.) The men who worked in the coal mine of Bois du Cazier, lost their lives in consequence of an accident in which a wagon was derailed and collided with a bundle of high tension electrical cables which lacked a protective shield. The tragedy dealt a blow to the Italian community and made everyone aware of the impossible working conditions in the mines. The Italian government, pressed by opposition, was forced to block the official paths of emigration to Belgium. Only after the terrible tragedy of Marcinelle were gas masks introduced in Belgian mines. The conditions in which the miners worked were deplorable.

Leonard Freed, Charleroi, 1956, Funerals for over two hundred men who were killed in coalmine blast
Leonard Freed, Charleroi, 1956, Funerals for over two hundred men who were killed in coalmine blast

Leonard Freed, who was in Italy at the time, hurried to the place and recorded the event, realizing moving images, which now Brigitte Freed, Leonard’s widow, has offered as a gift to the Museum of Charleroi in commemoration of the tragic event. The decision to show Worldview and the Marcinelle photographs together shows once again the double character of the Museum, which always tends to place great importance on everything of local culture. In fact Freed’s case is a typical example of this.

A visit proves to be especially interesting from different points of view. It takes more than a cursory visit to get a complete view of it, since the works on display are indeed many and, as already said, real classics of the history of photography. The museum, moreover, offers very interesting reading rooms, like libraries — not very large, but truly well-furnished with books on photography. The same innovative architecture (by L’ESCAUT) creates a space which gives one a desire to linger: the large windows, to enjoy the last rays of daylight, the external garden, and the extreme attention to details make it an exemplary organization.

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