On Wednesday November 29th, the world of documentary photography lost one of it's most gifted artists. Magnum photographer Leonard Freed succumbed to a bitter fight with cancer in upstate New York. During his final hours his loving wife, Brigette and daughter, Susanna were at his side. Even though he may not be with us any more there is no doubt that his life's work will continue to inspire viewers for many years to come.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, to working-class Jewish parents of Eastern European descent, Freed first wanted to become a painter. However, he began taking photographs while in the Netherlands in 1953, and discovered this was where his passion lay. In 1954, after trips through Europe and North Africa, he returned to the United States and studied in Alexei Brodovitch's "design laboratory." He moved to Amsterdam in 1958 and photographed the Jewish community there. Working as a freelance photographer from 1961 onwards, Freed began to travel widely, photographing blacks in America (1964-1965), events in Israel (1967-1968), the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and, between 1972 and 1979, the New York City police department.
Early in Freed’s career, Edward Steichen, then Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, bought three of his photographs for the museum. In the course of a two-hour conversation, Steichen told Freed that he was one of the three best young photographers he had seen and advised Freed to remain an amateur, as the other two were now doing commercial photography and had become uninteresting. "Preferably," he advised, "be a truck driver."
Freed joined Magnum in 1972, and since then has worked on assignment for the major international press, including "Life", "Look", "Paris Match", "Die Zeit", "Der Spiegel", "Stern", "Sunday Times Magazine", "New York Times Magazine", "GEO", "L'Express"; "Libération" and "Fortune". His coverage of the American civil rights movement first made him famous, but he has also produced major essays on Poland, Asian immigration in England, North Sea oil development, Spain since Franco and other subjects. Photography became Freed’s means to explore societal violence and racial discrimination. His 1980 book, Police Work, used words and pictures to document policing efforts in New York City while questioning our need for authority. He also completed a study of the Ku Klux Klan. In numerous books and films, Freed has examined German society and his own Jewish roots. Recent essays include "Vendetta in Crete", "Turkish Village", "Cyprus", "East Germany", "Gambling in Atlantic City", "Lebanon at War", "Death of Black Children In Atlanta, Georgia" and "The U.S. Army in Germany". He has also shot four films for Japanese, Dutch and Belgian television.
Of his work, Freed said, "Photography is a visual language still in its infancy. Just as the poet adds meaning to words, so the photographer adds to visual symbols. But, whereas the other arts developed in time over centuries, photography has yet to mature and define itself. The fact that millions of people can see the same visual images on television, in films or photography is communication. It is a language. To be a poet-photographer is both saddening and challenging. Saddening to think that literary traditions are being lost to a language that is only in its infancy. Challenging in that one is free to be original."
Over the years, Freed published a number of books and has displayed his work in several national and international group exhibitions as well as more than twenty solo exhibitions. Leonard Freed and his wife lived in New York's Hudson Valley.