'Concerned photographer' with eye for the unexpected

 

Leonard Freed:The name of the American Leonard Freed, who has died aged 77, became synonymous with that of the "concerned photographer". In the wake of the second World War, photojournalism became increasingly involved with human rights and, in Freed's case, with civil rights in his homeland.

As a documentarist of the situation of African-Americans, he always had an eye for the unexpected and upbeat, often in the grimmest of circumstances.

He followed the years of struggle by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) against segregation and discrimination, photographing Martin Luther King jnr and his great march across the US from Alabama to Washington; equally, his image of children playing around a water hydrant in New York became an icon, along with those of daily life in that city, still effectively segregated by ghettoisation in the 1950s and 60s.

Freed spent years photographing behind the scenes with the police department in the 1970s; when his famous resulting exhibition, The Spectre of Violence, was shown at London's Photographers' Gallery in 1973, it was as though the viewers were coming upon the actual scene of a murder.

They entered the gallery through black curtains, and a flash went off as they found a "corpse" at the bottom of a stairwell; the surrounding scenes were mounted on hardboard backing, dramatically involving the audience in a life-sized restaging.

Stylistically, this series was in the arresting, flashlit tradition of an earlier New York photographer, Weegee (Arthur Fellig).

But 1972 was also the year in which Freed joined Magnum, the Paris-based photo agency founded in 1948 by Bob Capa, George Rodger, "Chim" Seymour and Henri Cartier-Bresson. It was to be a lifelong relationship, for Magnum photographers have always adhered to their own humanistic precepts and social awarenesses.

Preferring - like most of his fellow Magnum members - to work in black and white, and using available light, Freed contributed to the key picture magazines of the postwar period, including Life, Look, Fortune, Libération, L'Express, GEO, Paris-Match, Die Zeit, Der Spiegeland the Sunday Timesmagazine.

He also shot four films for Dutch, Belgian and Japanese television, including The Negro in America(1968) and Joey Goes to Wigstock(1992).

Born into a humble Jewish family of east European extraction in Brooklyn, Freed originally wanted to become an artist. He attended the New School and studied with the legendary art director of Harper's Bazaar, Alexey Brodovitch - and it was in Brodovitch's "design laboratory" that Freed discovered his true vocation. As soon as he finished his studies, he took off for two years, hitch-hiking through Europe and north Africa.

This led in 1959 to his first book, Joden von Amsterdam(Jews of Amsterdam), a first one-man photo exhibition, at Hilversum in the Netherlands, and his decision to become a full-time freelancer shortly afterwards.

The interest in the Jewish diaspora and in Israel became a revisited theme for Freed. In 1965 he published Deutsche Juden Heute(German Jews Today), and in 1967 and 1973 he covered the six-day and Yom Kippur wars in the Middle East. There followed Black and White in America(1968); Seltsame Spiele(Strange Games, together with Shinkichi Tajiri, 1970); Made in Germany(1970); Police Work(1980; expanded as New York Police, 1990); and a major retrospective work, Leonard Freed: Photographies 1954-1990(1991).

Exhibitions accompanied and alternated with the books and films. These ranged from What is Man?, shown at the Benedictine convent at Cockfosters, north London, to Native Americans, a group show at the state capitol building in Albany, New York.

The former was cast in the mould of The Family of Man, Edward Steichen's travelling exhibition which intended to demonstrate, less than a decade after the second World War, that "People are people the world over: everywhere different and everywhere the same."

Perhaps What is Man?was Freed's response to Steichen, who, as director of the Museum of Modern Art, had first told Freed that he was one of the three best emerging photographers he had met.

Purchasing three images for his prestigious collection there, Steichen warned Freed that the other two had "turned commercial" and that he should either remain an amateur or "preferably, become a truck driver".

Freed chose neither option, determining instead to turn his vocation into a career. At the 1967 opening of the Concerned Photographer exhibition, curated by Cornell Capa and in which he showed with five of his peers, he announced: "Suddenly, I feel as if I belong to a tradition. To see life, see the world, be witness to great events, peer into the faces of the poor, the mad, to understand the shadows of the jungle, hidden things, to see, to rejoice in seeing, to be spiritually enriched."

It was a journey that took him to document Asian immigrants in Newcastle and oil workers in the North Sea, travellers in eastern Europe and Hassidic communities and black people in New York slums - always pursuing content and context over form and subjectivity.

Sue Davies, founder director of London's Photographers' Gallery, has informal memories of how Freed spent time in London in the early 1970s: "In my family album I have a picture he took at a wedding reception of my husband John waving a chicken leg in the air."

Jimmy Fox, picture editor at Magnum in Paris, recalls the small, dark, crinkle-haired man with big glasses: "During 38 years Leonard Freed was always polite, efficient, co-operative and smiling. He was open to other opinions and had a great interest in human behaviour, without being malicious or self-appropriating. The description 'Concerned photographer' fitted him like a glove."

Freed claimed that "Photography is still in its infancy . . . challenging in that [ it leaves] one free to be original." But, in truth, he and his Magnum colleagues are among those who brought the medium to maturity. He is survived by his wife, Brigitte Klueck, whom he married in 1958, and daughter Elke.

Leonard Freed: born October 23rd, 1929; died November 11th, 2006.