Leonard Freed and Italy: The Element of Time

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Leonard Freed, Io amo l'Italia, Mostra alle Stelline, Milano, dal 20/10/2011 al 08/01/2012. Catalogo con saggio di Michael Miller.

Leonard Freed, Io amo l’Italia, Mostra alle Stelline, Milano, dal 20/10/2011 al 08/01/2012.

“Io amo l’Italia.” Leonard Freed. Exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, from 20/10/2011 to 08/01/2012.

Catalogue by Quantuck Lane Press/Admira Edizioni, with an essay by Michael Miller.

Clicca qui per leggere questo articolo in italiano.


“There is a mathematical grid in the photograph. There is a rhythm.”1

While reading an interview between Leonard Freed and Nathalie Herschdorfer,2 my attention was caught by a comment Freed made on the connection between his photos and time: “The thing I am trying to get into my photographs is the element of time.”3 These words sparked in me a succession of observations on the Italian Images Project, which I will present in the following paragraphs.

The fact that Leonard Freed was a man of few words emerges from his interviews and works,4 and is further substantiated by browsing through some of the diaries he kept during his many travels to Italy between 1999 and 2005. Freed’s reflections are always concise and direct, often ironical, and show all the subtlety of observation captured by his images. Time is a motif present in both his photographs and his diaries, which were frequently used to record notes on dates, weather, names, meetings and conversations.

On this subject it is worth considering some of the sketches that he drew by his own hand for the layout of his unfinished book on Rome, a project which he had hoped to bring to fruition for many years. By correlating them with the contact sheets archived in chronological order, it is immediately apparent that the publishing project which Freed intended to realize was based on the idea of laying out the images according to the sequence in time in which they were shot. Here, photography becomes a diary, a narration of time, the skeleton and the body of many travels, rendering a chronology that was intimately owned by the author.

Leonard Freed belongs to a generation of photographers who considered their job to be a “self-assigned form of reporting.”5 Often, their work was based not on commissions by magazines or newspapers, but rather on being able to organize and plan their reportages according to personal interests, without being constrained by deadlines or artificially current themes, in full accordance with Magnum Photo’s working methods. These terms allowed Freed to nurture a passion which he considered to be a “Love Story:” Italy.6 Leonard Freed’s complex and multifaceted vision of the Belpaese took shape over the course of fifty years and more than forty-five separate visits. The beginnings of this pilgrimage can be traced back to 1954, when Freed began focusing his photographic attention on Little Italy, the famous Italo-American neighborhood in New York City.

In support of this observation, a parallel with one of Freed’s most famous reportages, Black in White America, is appropriate. It is well-known that the idea of making a work on the condition of African-Americans in the United States flashed through Freed’s mind when he was in Germany, in front of the Berlin Wall, face to face with a black U.S. Army soldier, there to serve his country, wearing a uniform and shouldering a rifle.8 In 1962, when the photograph was taken, racial segregation laws were still in force in many States, especially in the South. It was also the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Leonard Freed decided to return to America to tell that story.

The pictures of the Little Italy series represent the same research process: starting from a marginal microcosm, the photographer explores this world until the central node of the problem is reached. In the case of Black in White America, Freed went from the Old Continent to the New Continent; in the Italian case, he begins in the New Continent, then moves back to the Old; the ultimate goal in both cases being to investigate the problem and reach the starting point physically, photographing the causes of the initial situation, retracing the cause-effect process.

It is also interesting to note that Freed’s work is often characterized by a tendency to focus on ethnic minorities: if we consider the Italians of Little Italy a ghettoized ethnic minority, it is possible to relate their situation to that of the Indonesians in the Netherlands,9 the Afro-Americans of Black in White America, or, as Bill Ewing10 points out, to the photos of Police Works, in which the vision of the photographer visually renders the social condition of a policeman as that of a marginal group of people.

Leonard Freed Venezia

Leonard Freed Venezia

From 1956 onward Leonard Freed started going to Italy regularly, crossing it both vertically in space and horizontally in time. During his first visits to Rome, Florence, Naples and Siena, he shot fifty rolls of film. He returned to the capital in 1958, in order to witness the election of Pope Pio XII, taking more than four hundred photographs. During these years he took some of his most famous Italian shots, among which are those of the extraordinary snowfall of 1956, in which two priests have a snowball fight in front of the glaring white of St. Peter’s colonnade; yet the dynamism and irony of these shots are just a taste of the work to come.

Leonard Freed followed the wave set by two other great photographers: Robert Frank (who, like Freed, was a follower of Alexey Brodovitch) and William Klein. By the late Fifties Frank and Klein had realized (respectively) “Les Americains”11 and “Rome,”12 thus starting a “new kind of social photography.”13

Each of these photographers had connections with both Europe and the United States. While Frank was born in Zurich and became a naturalized citizen of the USA, the other two were born in America and went to the Old World, in that post-reportage push that was based on a “key to the research of meaning.”14 The symbols that Frank found in America’s juke-boxes, motels, cars and flags, were found by Klein in the Vespas and women with fascinating gazes, and by Freed in the first Fiat Cinquecentos, in the boarding of the Andrea Doria liner15 and in the rich traditions of historic Italy.

Freed continued his visits to Italy in the Sixties and, in concomitance with his joining the Magnum Agency in 1972, he focused his attention from 1973 to 1976 on the two great Italian islands: primarily Sicily, but at the same time producing a reportage in 1974 for the Sunday Times on the Asinara in Sardinia.

The magazine published only one large format color picture, but from the analysis of the contact sheets three rolls of black and white films emerge, focused on the school life of the children of the prison guards serving in Sardinia. On this topic it should be noted that the pictures shot in Asinara are the only ones that Freed took following a proper commission.

Leonard Freed, Sicilia 1975

Leonard Freed, Sicilia 1975

Many of the shots are taken in the streets or inside houses, often with the subject posing, their gaze fixed on the camera. There is a continuous communication of light and shade that, instead of highlighting contrast, connect the subject to the scenery.

The “tonnara” pictures set is not to be overlooked; these are images that convey all the agitation, the exertion and the smells of a night on the sea.  Leonard Freed wasn’t a photographer of the decisive moment, he loved to tell stories by articulating them in full, from beginning to end; he does not stop at shooting the Sicilian fishermen’s nets in the water, but instead follows the full procedure, capturing all the moments of production, from the men going out to sea in the early morning dark, to the women busy at boxing the caught meat in tin cans.

Furthermore, it is to be noted that Sicily is one of the few places in which Freed uses the “landscape portrait in pose” technique: by depicting the subject in their habitual places, for instance at home or at the workplace, he both saves them from the discomfort caused by the presence of the camera and makes them “active participants to the take,”16 using the setting as a gauge of their socio-cultural conditions.

Last but not least, let’s recall the picture of the 1974, that told the story of a population divided by the referendum for the abrogation of the Fortuna-Baslini law, that introduced divorce in Italy in 1970. Italians are in the streets, handling protest placards. Leonard Freed is again among the demonstrators, exactly as it happened ten years before (1963-1965), while he was travelling in the Southern United States to tell the story of the African-American civil rights battles.

The spotting of the connection between present and past elements is to be noted as an embryonic tendency from his sporadic visits to Italy during the eighties and the nineties, that will find its complete expression in the following roman shots.

From the text written by Leonard Freed in order to introduce his Amsterdam: The Sixties image set, we recall these words: “I came from New Amsterdam and this old Amsterdam was the revelation that shaped and changed my life; it fused an old and a new world, left me outsider. As the pendulum moves, so do I. In the old I am new, while in the new I am old.”17

Freed appears to have continued cultivating the sensations experienced during the Sixties in the Netherlands, to bring them along always, first in its starting phase, precisely in the twenty-year period from the end of seventies to the end of nineties during his travels in the south-central Italy, then to its blossoming and complete and conscious expression during the first years of the 21st century in Rome. Indeed compositions looking after the contrast between new and antique, in a perception of time in which the glance can dangle, are often found. The interaction between the subjects of the pictures and the surrounding setting often reveals itself to the be nodal point of Freed’s photos: the contact is based both on a research on a graphical plane (we therefore see a repetition of motifs and shapes, continuous appeals and dialogues between people and the objects surrounding them, like the wheels of the pram and those of the soldiers’ motorbikes – photographed in Rome, 1957), and on a symbolic plane (the creation of significance connections between the “scenography” and “the actors” of the pictures, underlines the communication contained by the composition and the birth of symbolic structures, often guessed with great sagacity).

The same can be said for all that concerns Rome, the monuments or the environments in which the portrayed persons are inserted: there is a constant study of the morphology of faces, glances, body language, in relation with statues, posters, advertisements, street furniture.

It is exactly this proceeding by contrasts that characterizes Freed’s poetics: the nudes in the Coliseum, the priests posing for a photo at the Pantheon while an old beggar is begging, the bridal veil of a bride in Venice following the hollow line of a gondola, a priest shot from behind his shoulders that appears to be throwing a snowball toward St. Peter’s colonnade, the Bourgeois Rome, the Rome of the Gypsies, the Milan of fashion, the Sicily of the fishermen and of simple people, women embroidering and the intense glances at Asinara.

As Susannah – Freed’s daughter – often recalled to me during the time I spent in Garrison while researching this project, he was used to “creating images and to first see the scene in his mind, and only after, at a following time, looking through the viewfinder and shooting a rather limited number of frames in order to find the perfect combination.”

Furthermore, as Susannah told me, he had found an ideal way to dissimulate the strength of his Leica, hiding it and discrediting it under a fair number of stickers, in order to set it free from its invading and professional character, thus allowing him to move quickly into the situations that he intended to capture. Starting from this set of elements, Leonard Freed started taking photos of Rome in the 1999.

By reading his Italian diaries some noteworthy points emerge: the most substantial and thick pages are found in the 1999 diaries, when he came back to the capital after a long hiatus and the sensations of marvel and new were strong and vivid in him. These notes are written with an attention and rigor that articulate his sensations, though he is never a flooding river but always measured and thought-out.

In his diary of the 16th of December 1999 he states:

Now I understand the difference between Italians and the other people. While I was taking a picture of three women sitting on plastic chair they uttered: “Here, now you have made us immortal!” This is the Italian woman’s way of thinking; a French woman would have said:  “Our body is our own and its private, you can’t use it!” An American woman instead: “How much will you pay me?” Italian women feel they were made immortal, by respecting the creator […] the Italian woman sees herself as honored by the artist.17

Rome is the most photographed location of Freed’s Italian production. There, he worked regularly and with a previously planned, detailed project structure. Leonard Freed was in the alleys, houses, churches, museums and brothels for nearly five years, save for a Venetian pause in 2004 for the realization of VeniceVenezia in cooperation with the Roman photographer Claudio Corrivetti.

He analyzed many aspects of the city and always studied them in-depth; he is never superficial, he enters the situations: his Rome is a dynamic one that is never the same, made by different theatres in which he knows something will happen; it is not the city of postcards, but of people, encounters, glances and gestures.

In the same period – from 2000 to 2005 – four more Magnum photographers got closer to Rome: the first one is Koudelka, by realizing a series of black and white landscape panoramas. Then Martin Parr, with a series of rather well-known shots, in color, whose primary subjects are tourists. Then again Paolo Pellegrin with some black and white portraits shot inside the Vatican and, last but not least, a color project by the German, Thomas Hoepker.

The same happened during the seventies when, while Freed was going to Sicily with Cartier-Bresson, Ferdinando Scianna realized a reportage on the Southern Italian peninsula, focusing on Calabria and Lucania; Dennis Stock, Marc Riboud were also going through our territory, and Richard Kalvar was there frequently in order to realize the publishing project “Italy 1978-1984.”

What sets Freed’s work apart from these other Magnum photographers, aside from obvious stylistic and technical differences, is the element of time. Leonard Freed didn’t simply pass through Italy; for him, Italy was a love affair, a permanent part of his photography that largely remained unknown until now.

Finally, thanks to the special contribution and perseverance of Brigitte, wife and work-partner of Leonard Freed, a lifelong journey is brought to a end, a path that remained suspended for a long time. The circle, first opened in Little Italy in 1954, is now closed. In conjunction with the 150th Anniversary of the Unification of Italy, Leonard Freed offers us his personal view of our people, spanning the second half of the twentieth century.


1. Leonard Freed, Worldview, Steidl, London, 2007, p. 208.
2. N. Herschdorfer , Wandering with a Purpose, Ibid., p. 203.
3. Ibid., p. 207.
4. Bill Ewing Wide World, Ibid., p.11
5. Brett Abbott, Engadged Observers, Getty, Los Angeles, 2010, p. 1.
6. Leonard Freed has used the words “Love Story”, referring to Italy, in a self-assignment letter he wrote to Magnum Photos on 1999, when he gave start to his Rome project.
7. As he himself declares in the interview with Nathalie Herschdorfer in Worldwiev, p. 203: “ There is something Nietzsche said that struck me. It was about illness. To get better, you have to overcome the illness. But this is followed by another illness, and then another, until there is a final illness – death – that kills you. So each of the issues that I choose – the Jews, the Germans, the Black People, the Police, and so on – are my illness, or problems that I have to overcome.” Leonard Freed has commented many times on the “healing function” that photography had in his life. See also the on-line interview released to the photographic magazine NITAL: “When I am not taking pictures, I feel fat, sick. As a runner needs to train by running, so I must move, walk. But I have to do that with an aim, that is that of taking pictures. When I am going around taking pictures I feel both mentally and physically well.”
8. Leonard Freed, Black in White America, Grossman, 1968, p. 6.
9. Leonard Freed, Amsterdam, Focus Publishing, Amsterdam, 1997.
10. Leonard Freed, Worldview, Steidl, Londra, 2007, p. 15.
11. Robert Frank, Les Americains, published in Paris in 1958 by Robert Delpire and reissued by Steidl in 2009, with the title “Robert Frank’s The Americans, Looking in.”
12. William Klein, Roma, Feltrinelli, Milano, reissued on 2009 bya Contrasto with the title “Roma+Klein”.
13. R. Valtorta, La vita al di là del reportage, in Id. Il pensiero dei fotografi, Bruno Mondadori, Milan, 2008, p. 141.
14. Ibid., p. 142.
15. Andrea Doria transatlantic liner: it sank on 25 July 1956 after colliding with the ship MN Stockholm. Incoming from Genova and outbound to New York, following to the impact, probably due to thick fog. Forty-six of the 1706 passengers that were on board that night died. The line sunk on the morning of 26 July 1956, eleven hours after the impact. After that collision, more stringent navigation rules were enacted as well as a greater attention to the preparation of the shipowners, especially on the matters concerning the use of radar.
16. M. Miraglia, Lo ‘stile documentario’ nella ripresa del secondo Dopoguerra, in M. Miraglia, G. Fragapane, F. Faeta, M. Di Felice, S. Novellu M. Miraglia, G. Fragapane, F. Faeta, M. Di Felice, S. Novellu, La fotografia in Sardegna. Lo sguardo esterno, gli anni del dopoguerra, Lisso, Nuoro, 2009, p. ?
17. Taken from the unpublished diaries of Leonard Freed, courtesy of his wife Brigitte Freed.

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