Saturday, August 18, 2007

Worldview by Leonard Freed


Leonard Freed’s last words to his wife before succumbing to cancer on November 30, 2006 were “No more pictures.”

Freed, who was 77 when he died, was organizing an exhibition and book for the Musee de l’Elysee in Laussanne of his life’s work. Worldview, both in book and show is the most comprehensive retrospective of this accomplished photographer to date.

Leonard Freed was a mix of many different types of photographers. There was Freed who could work a news event as fluidly and professionally as any other spot news photographer. There was also the Freed whose interest could be sparked to a subject so strongly that he wouldn’t stop his in depth exploration until there was a full “story” under his belt. “You can recognize everything from then on is redundant and there is no need to do any more.” And then, most interesting to me, there was the Leonard Freed who was a wanderer, fascinated with everyday occurrence and happenstance.

The book Worldview published by Steidl in association with the Musee de l’Elysee is a 300+ page, 200 image compilation of Freed’s best work. Designed with the work presented chronologically, the book reveals a surprising consistency from Freed’s earliest pictures to his last. Freed once said, “Good photographers are born not made.” I know a few that weren’t, but Freed seems to be a fine example of talent from the start.

The edit of Worldview is a wonderful mix of known and unknown images. Even for those familiar with his work, the variety of the edit is a refreshing and enlightening walk through the 50 plus years of Freed’s career.

Worldview isn’t without slight flaws in design and printing but they are not enough to detract strongly from the overall enjoyment of the work. The design aspect is my usual criticism of some images getting dissected by the gutter of the book (this doesn’t seem to be problematic for most people only me). Luckily, the book is bound in a way that opens very flat; surprising because this is a very thick book.

The printing is another matter. You have heard me say (and I continue to like a bleating sheep) that Steidl is the best printer (and possibly publisher) of current photo and art books. So it was a surprise to see that this book in my opinion has some printing problems in several of the images. In those images the tonalities reminded me of the grayness that one can experience while making gelatin silver prints from copy negatives. It was after I read the production credits in the back of the book that I found a curious one for “Original prints photographed by Nicholas Lieber.” So the original prints were rephotographed and then those (digital?) images were prepared for the press? This is distinctly different from scanning prints or negatives which is the usual process. I think this ‘rephotographing’ accounts for the lack of shadow detail in many of the images and the grayness I referred to before. Usually Steidl is capable of very smooth transitions between tones and the achievement of an extended tonal range but here the scale is compressed; especially in the lower darker tonalities. I wonder if it was a question of time that led to this mode of production, since after all, it is a companion to the exhibition so there probably was a matter of strict deadlines.

Worldview includes an essay by Wim van Sinderen called ‘An American in Amsterdam’ and an interview with between Leonard Freed and Nathalie Herschdorfer that reveals in Freed’s own eloquent words, his approach to photography and his subjects.

This is the finest book of Freed’s work available and it trumps the last retrospective book Leonard Freed: Photographs 1954 – 1990 that was published in 1991 by Editions Nathan in Paris and by WW Norton in 1992. That title, although fairly nicely printed, is dull in comparison to this design and selection of images. It also features one of Freed’s lesser interesting images on its cover of a policeman holding a policeman puppet. That particular image, in my opinion, is less indicative of Freed’s usual sensibility and its choice of high placement for the cover seems confused. The cover image of Worldview is of a crowd in Cologne jostling for a clear view of a parade during carnival. This serves a much more fitting and appropriate image for a book from a photographer who spent his life fighting for the best place to stand and see.

Freed always struck this viewer as a European photographer posing as an American. His approach seemed to rest somewhere between a European sensibility and an American one. Favoring the lyric over the hard fact, his images even in the grittiest of images, celebrate grace. And while looking through Worldview, grace seems ever present.

“Photography is not entertaining, this is not decoration, this is not advertising. Photography is an emotional thing, a graceful thing. Photography allows me to wander with a purpose.” -Leonard Freed

Buy online at Steidlville

19 comments:

Colin [auspiciousdragon.net] said...

The design aspect is my usual criticism of some images getting dissected by the gutter of the book (this doesn’t seem to be problematic for most people only me).

You are not alone!

I've been known to choose not to buy a book because of this. It is endemic though. I was horrified, for example, to see gutter prints in Shore's new edition of 'The Nature of Photographs'.

Jeff Ladd said...

Colin,

It happens all the time but out of my friends I seem to be the only one that goes ballistic over stuff like this.

Glad to hear there are others. I'm going to start a support group.

Stuart Alexander said...

Photos in the gutter do not horrify me categorically. There is a way that it can be done intelligently (be selecting which pictures to run across the gutter, by placement of the gutter and by printing so no image is lost there) but it is often done ineptly and then I am appalled like you.

Does the text say how much involvement in the editing and design of the book Leonard had before his demise? He was a terrific photographer and a wonderful person who deserves a major monograph worthy of his stature. I look forward to seeing it.

Jeff Ladd said...

Stuart,

The introduction by William Ewing mentions that Leonard was very hands on with both the book and exhibition. He lived to see their final edit for both show and book but did not live to see either in finished form. The show is apparently of vintage prints. He is mentioned to be "too much of a book person," so to him the book was more important than the exhibition.

Jeff Ladd said...

The book design is credited to Sarah Winter / Steidl Design. I don't know if that means Sarah AND Steidl or Sarah OF Steidl Design.

Sufian said...

Yes, oh my god, photo in the gutter. I am absolutely appalled that a photographer would allow that to happen to his/her work. I just got a book by an Indonesia photog and JHC!, about 20% of his photos are mutilated by the gutter.

What's wrong with occasionally printing in landscape format?

Amy said...

I know I'm in a minority of one here, but actually LIKE double spreads, and have done since I first saw the butterfly at the end of The Hungry Caterpillar.
Admittedly this probably has something to do with my mother making the butterfly flap its wings and even then, from age, six months or whatever I would have been when this book was presented to me, it irritated me that the gutter was a quarter of the way down one wing so the butterfly flapped in a maimed kind of way.
I probably wouldn't go for a big fold and stitching down the middle as the preferred feature of a gallery print. But I love it when, after all these neat and tidy pictures keeping themselves to themselves, each to a page, you get one that's twice the size spilling out across two pages, it just jumps at you. And there's something exciting about the movement of the page, being able to open the picture out.
I like double spreads so much that, even though I generally shoot landscape, being too lazy to turn the camera upright, sometimes I make panoramas just so I can have a double spread in my (landscape) portfolio.

One Way Street said...

Unless the binding is such that a double spread can lie open flat, which is usually NOT the case - I can't help but consider the loss of an image to this dreaded gutter.

I can't believe there are that many people, especially involved w/ photography, who are NOT incensed by this.

Stuart Alexander said...

I am a little tired of this moaning about the gutter. As I said above, running pictures across the gutter can be done intelligently. Take a look at Henri Cartier-Bresson's 'The Decisive Moment' and tell me that the double-page spreads are not spectacular and the images would be better served by staying out of the gutter. There are many other examples up to the present but that is one of the best classic examples.

Jeff "Gutterless" Ladd said...

Stuart,
That's why i was compelled to do The Silence which is one of many books that achieve gutter images that I have no problem with. What does get my goat is when it is entirely motivated by the designers feeling that the momentum of the book suffers if the photos are not occasionally shifted away from a book's established pattern. I am not crazy about the book but look at Sally Mann's Immediate Family. 4 pictures are shoved into the gutter when all the rest are full page with a little border. Why was it necessary for those four (which are ruined by the shifting)?? I often "read" this as the designer leaving their mark on books. Kind of like a dog pissing on a hydrant.

Double E said...

The trick is to have a format that allows image to be moved from one side or other, depending on picture content. RE: sally mann: the gutter is where they belong. No redeming social value.

rbsphoto said...

Stuart,

I think there is still a lot of moaning about photos in gutters because, unbelievably, photographers still don't understand how to handle them. They forget that their book will rarely be flat like the layouts on single pieces of paper. As you said, all they have to do is remember to leave room to shift the photos left or right to get them out of the gutter. It's amazing they don't remember to do that after all the disasters they have seen. It's a rare book that has small signatures that allow it to open flat. Just when I think photographers have remembered how to handle the gutter, I get another book with lots of headless subjects or pinheads - lost in the gutter.

Cary said...

I like how when I google "Worldview by Leonard Freed" your blog is at the top of the list. Keep up the fantastic work.

Jeff Ladd said...

Thanks Cary...

Adrian said...

Gutters aside, I visited the exhibition last weekend and it was well worth the two hours train ride each way - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! It will end next weekend, so hurry up if you're nearby Lausanne, Switzerland.
http://tinyurl.com/2l4aw9

Thanks to Jeff for bringing it to my attention.

Adrian said...

ps: the exhibition will be next shown in the Fotomuseum Den Haag (06.10.2007-13.01.2008)

William A. Ewing said...

I would like to say something about the design of the new Freed book, and the question of guttering. I laid out the book, and it was done very carefully as a sequence of pairs. When the pairing wasn't "perfect", I ran the images alone on a double page. Sometimes the image runs across the gutter, sometimes not--it all depended on the power of the image.

When it does run across the gutter, it is intentional. It is absurd to have a rule set in stone. I chose images that (a) would not be compromised by gutttering, and (b) would be enhanced bigger than a single page allows.

I lay out books with great attention to these issues, and it is always frustrating to see people with knee-jerk reactions. I fully agree that guttering can kill a picture. But it can also work extremely well.

The reaction to our show by the public was quite astonishing. Normally our public seems to react according to age, but this time young and old were deeply moved. We have a visitors' book and the words 'moving' 'fascinating' 'magnificent' etc., were often repeated.

William A. Ewing, director
Musee de l'Elysee Lausanne

Jeff Ladd said...

William,

Thank you for your comments and the insight into what went into making Worldview.

Admittedly, the discussion of gutter images that befell upon this particular book was a bit untimely as I think the images that cross the gutter were chosen wisely and care was given to minimize the effect. I can think of hundreds of other titles that were laid out in a manner where the designer was just leaving their mark so to speak. This I was not mentioning Worldview as one that fell into this camp.

I hope my reactions do not seem knee-jerk as I make these criticisms on a case by case basis. My criticism of gutter images is simply how, when "reading" the book, there are moments when the reader is removed from the direct experience of the photographs. It might be the ringing of a cell phone or any disturbance. Or it might be in the book design. When I am drawn away from an image in those circumstances, I make note of it. I may be overly sensitive.

It is a wonderful book and I have heard that the exhibition is fantastic. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Freed several times (and had the rare pleasure of printing a few of his images years ago) he will be missed greatly.

Please keep reading and commenting.

Jeff Ladd said...

I received a nice note from a person at Steidl that let me know about the printing flaw with Worldview.

Seems most of my suspicions were correct.

The Musee was having the prints photographed (I assume because they were vintage prints and the Musee wanted to capture the patina of them?) and the first two sets of test shots submitted were lacking shadow and highlight detail so they were refused by the head of the scanning department at Steidl.

The last set were better but the same problems had resurfaced when they received the entire lot from the photographer. The green light had to be given to proceed with printing because of the exhibition deadline.

My thanks to Steidl for clarifying.