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