An American in Deutschland: Photographs by Leonard Freed

Sep 15, 2011 - Nov 15, 2011

Photo Exhibition at the GHI | Curated by Paul M. Farber and Martin Klimke

Leonard Freed (1929-2006) devoted his career as a photographer to making sense of his place within a complex world. The American-born Freed garnered international acclaim as a member of the photographer's collective Magnum, creating images that documented the global transformations of the second half of the twentieth century. Freed's conceptual engagement with both history and geography is reflected through photographs in which he brought his human subjects and the exposed layers of their social landscapes into a shared frame. A site of immense political and personal importance, Germany was one of Freed's most frequent points of departure. 

Freed grew up in Brooklyn, New York. His parents Sam and Rose were both born to Jewish families in Minsk, Russia, but met and married after they immigrated to the United States - escaping a wave of pogroms in their native land around the First World War. In 1952, Freed sailed to Europe, where he would reside for the better part of two decades. He eventually settled in Amsterdam until moving back to New York in 1970. Postwar Europe was a puzzle for Freed: a land of great artistic civilization, familial aura, Jewish trauma, postwar destruction and potential redemption. In his mind, Germany was the central and most jagged piece.

While traveling in Germany, Freed honed his craft as a documentary photographer and wrestled with his identity as an American Jew. From his earliest travels, he pondered the ways in which history and memory influenced Germany's postwar condition, and in turn, his relationship to the country. Freed began photographing Germany on his first trip to Europe in the early 1950s - including at least one image taken at the walled boundary of the Dachau concentration camp. He bought his first Leica camera, a used model, in Cologne in 1954. In 1957, he married Brigitte Klück, a German woman; his work was first published in her hometown newspaper in Dortmund. Freed's books - Deutsche Juden heute (German Jews Today) (1965), Made in Germany (1970) and Great Cities: Berlin (1977) - indicate his commitment to photographing the people and landscapes of a divided Germany, as do his photo essays for Der Spiegel and Die Zeit.

Visibly displaying the scars of postwar Germany, the city of Berlin occupies a special place in Freed's work. The images from his many journeys to the divided city exemplify his visionary approach. He traveled to Berlin by train in August 1961 to confirm for himself the construction of a wall cutting through the middle of the city; he lived in West Berlin briefly in 1976 and his curtainless bedroom window faced the border wall; he photographed Turkish families in West Berlin in 1984 who were living close to the Wall in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg; and he returned in November 1989 and October 1990 to observe the dismantling of the Wall and the rapid unification of the city. Beyond the Cold War, the Wall symbolized for Freed the many legacies of division and conflict running across the different epochs of modern Germany.

The Wall also helped Freed visualize the social barriers that defined American society. Among his first photographs of the Berlin Wall is a single shot of an unnamed African American solider standing at the edge of the American sector of West Berlin. The image is emblematic of a central contradiction of postwar American culture - the solider guarded America's Cold War frontline abroad but was denied full citizenship rights back home. Freed published this photograph as the opening image in Black in White America (1968), in which he represented and challenged America's racial color line. As Freed's career developed, many of his most important themes - the Jewish Diaspora, African American civil rights, German history, law and order - could be traced back through his photographic explorations of Berlin.

Freed published twelve books and captured over one million images in his lifetime. In the final decade of his life, Freed intended to follow up his earlier Germany-focused projects with a new one that would look both forward and back. Freed planned to present the unified "New Germany" by juxtaposing contemporary images with others pulled from his own archive, many accompanied by diary-style annotations. After his death, several drafts and a prototype of this unfinished book were found in his papers. As a living artifact, this project documents Freed's relationship with both his own work and German history as a process of dynamic reflection and reinterpretation. As he stated at the onset of this undertaking, "I feel being born in the United States gives me a fresh or extra eye to observe what the average German will overlook."

An American in Deutschland highlights Freed's career-long focus on Germany and presents the first glimpse of his unpublished project. Many of the photographs displayed here were printed under Freed's supervision for a 2005 show at the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn. This exhibition extends the scope of that display with the inclusion of Freed's own writings and several additional photographs of significance taken in Germany. Recalling the interconnectedness of Freed's own image work, and in conjunction with this exhibition at the German Historical Institute, two other institutions will also exhibit several prints by Freed: the Washington DC Jewish Community Center's Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery (September 15 - November 15) and the Goethe-Institut (September 28 - October 28). As a whole, An American in Deutschland explores postwar German society from Freed's unique historical vantage point.

In collaboration with Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC Jewish Community Center's Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery, and the Goethe-Institut.

Under the patronage of the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany, Dr. Peter Ammon.

Photographs courtesy of Brigitte Freed
Copyright: Leonard Freed/ Magnum Photos
For more on Leonard Freed, please visit his website at Magnum Photos.