Interview: Bridgette Freed

Renowned Brooklyn photographer Leonard Freed met his wife Bridgitte in the ‘Eternal City’

Brooklynites In Rome-Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
By Palmer Hasty

Renowned photographer Leonard Freed was born in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn in 1929 to working class Jewish parents of Russian descent. He was a member of the well-known Magnum Photography Collective from 1972 until his death in 2006.  

Initially he wanted to be a painter, but found that his creative instincts and passion, while shooting documentary photographs in the Netherlands in 1952, were better suited for the photograph. He is officially described as a “documentary photojournalist.” Freed’s natural instinct for timing and composition, combined with his journalistic storytelling skills, have caused some photography critics to compare his artistry to that of Shakespeare.

Freed traveled a great deal throughout the world during his career, producing photo essays for prominent publications such as Der Spiegel, Di Zeit, Liberation, Life, Look, Paris-Match and The Sunday Times Magazine of London. 

He documented high-profile events such as the American civil rights movement in the 1960s, and traveled with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his march from Alabama to Washington, D.C.  During this period, he became well known in 1968 with the publication of his book “Black in White America.”  

Later, in 1980, he published a book of photographs and text titled “Police Work,” based on his behind-the-scenes photographs and observations of New York City law enforcement at work. He also documented the Arab-Israeli wars of the late 1960s and early ’70s. A large swath of his excellent photo reporting is based on his specific interest in violence and racial discrimination in America, and he also produced thousands of photographs documenting the life of Jewish people around the world in the decade following WWII in Amsterdam and the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

Freed also shot four films for Japanese, Dutch and Belgian television. It would be impossible to cover in a newspaper article every aspect of Freed’s prolific and multifaceted career as a photo journalist.  

The world-renowned photographer Edward Steichen once bought three of Freed’s prints from the Jews of Williamsburg series for the Museum of Modern Art, and told the young Freed he was one of the three best young photographers he’d ever seen. Freed’s photos are in museum collections around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Israel Museum.   

As recently as 2012, the American Embassy in Italy, in celebration of Italy’s 150th Anniversary, worked with Freed’s wife and printer Brigitte Freed and Brill Gallery owner Stephen Brill to present Italy with “The Italians,” a beautiful book of 100 of Freed’s photographs of Italian life spanning the past 50 years. A selection of these photographs went on exhibition at the Museo di Roma in Trastevere in Rome before traveling throughout Europe. Freed once said, “The thing I am trying to get into my photographs is the element of time.”

Today, Freed’s reputation as a master black and white photographer continues to grow.  Throughout his career, Freed traveled to Italy about 45 times. He is known for describing his relationship with Italy as “a love story.” When he returned to Brooklyn from Europe in 1954, he moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Little Italy in Manhattan. This was when he became irrevocably fascinated with the Italian way of life. It was during this time that Freed also created his documentary series “The Jews of Williamsburg,” which he incorporated into his vast collection of critically acclaimed photos documenting Jews around the world after World War II.

While conducting preliminary research on Leonard Freed this past April, I also received an invitation to visit Rome for three weeks. Before I left on my trip, I discovered that Leonard Freed in fact had several profound connections to the “eternal city.” I also discovered that in addition to meeting his wife Brigitte while he was in Rome on a photo assignment for Look Magazine in 1956, later in his life (2004) Freed collaborated with Claudio Corrivetti, an acclaimed Roman photographer, on a 272-page book of photographs, which is the focus of a second article on Brooklyn-Rome connections.  

Further research in April led me to Brigitte herself, who is 82 years old and still living in her and her late husband’s upstate home in Garrison, N.Y.  

In the interview with Brigitte, conducted just a few days before I left for Rome, Brigitte told me, in her heavy German accent, about how she met the photographer in Rome and subsequently how they became, in both love and art, life partners.   


BE: Can you tell us when and how you met Leonard?

BF: I met Leonard in 1956. We both happened to be staying in a youth hostel. That’s how you traveled after the war. I had just finished business school, had my first job and was on vacation. My father was an architect, and he wanted me to tell him about all the fabulous architecture in Rome.

Late one afternoon, I was sitting in the garden listening to a group of about 30 German architects who were on some kind of group trip and also staying at the hostel. I had come by myself, which was strange for back then because it was more normal for Germans to travel in groups. I was sitting there and it was getting dark. Someone had closed the gates to the grounds, and suddenly there was someone shaking the gate who saw me sitting there in the dark and then called out to me, “Let me in.”  So I let him in, because you could open the gate from the inside.


BE: And that was Freed?

BF: “Yes, it was Leonard, with a plastic bag full of small film canisters attached to his belt. Believe it or not, I had never seen a plastic bag. I asked him what it was and he said, “It’s film,” and I said, no, what’s this you’re carrying it in?
He was amused and said, “Let me show you something.”  He took me to a different gate on the grounds and asked me to look through the keyhole. When I peeped through the keyhole I could see the Dome of St. Peters perfectly outlined by the contours of the keyhole.”

BE: So you started going out together?

BF: “Well, yes. We didn’t go out to cafes or restaurants or anything because Leonard had no money. He invited me on his motor-roller (a Lambretta) to go to the beaches in Ostia Antica. It was May and the Italians never went there in May because the water is too cold, but it was warm to us and the Italians called us Germans the “ice bears.”  We also went to St. Peter’s Basilica together and I was with him when he photographed the Pope baptizing the first child of the year at the Bernini Fountain. My trip came to an end.”

BE: What happened then?

BF: “Before I left, Leonard asked me for my address and I said, oh no, I see you are a playboy. At the beach house he had tried to make out with me but my father had said before I left for vacation “Don’t come home pregnant” … So I said, “No, no, no!”  
I told Leonard: “Because you are just a playboy, you meet the women and you just play with them.”  I didn’t give him my address in Germany. So I went back to Germany and thought about him day and night and thought what a stupid thing not giving him my address.”

BE: What did Leonard do?

BF: “Leonard was smart; he took the address out of the youth hostel book.  I still have his diary where he wrote the address.
He finished his story in Naples, but never delivered it to the magazine. He rode his Lambretta over the Alps through Austria and into Germany. I lived in Northern Germany so he had about a 500-mile trip. He came to my house but I wasn’t there.  He met my mother who told him that I had never told them about him. “Who are you?” she said. So he asked my mother if he could sleep in my room and my mother said, “No! I can’t do that because we know nothing about you.” So she sent him to a hotel and he took off the next day.”

BE: Did he come back after that?

BF: “Yes. He came back in the winter again without calling, and it was a big surprise of course, and from then on we stayed together. He had gone to Hamburg to see a friend of his who spoke German. He learned some German so he could better communicate with my parents. He was interested in knowing what happened to all the people in Germany after the war. He asked my parents so many questions. My mother said, “He must be a spy, he asks so many questions;” but I told her, no, he was a journalist, he has to ask questions.”

BE: When did you start printing his photos?

BF: “I started printing his photos in 1957 when he made his first book about the Jews of Amsterdam (“Joden van Amsterdam”).  He brought the negatives to Germany. We went to a school where they had a dark room, so at night we would go to the dark room and print. He learned how to print in Amsterdam. He was a very good printer but he would spend all day on one print. So he was printing and I was impatient and said, “Let me do it, let me do it.”  It’s hard to believe now, but he said, “No, women can’t do this work.”
He was living in Amsterdam at the time.  I had all his negatives with me, so when he returned to Amsterdam I bought myself a small dark room and started printing his photographs.  I’ve been his printer ever since.  The next year, in 1958, we got married in Amsterdam.”

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An interesting note about the impressive photos Freed took in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: It is not quite clear how or why a Magnum photographer like Leonard Freed decided to photograph the wild Christmas party of a Madison Avenue advertising agency in 1966, but a group of negatives were discovered on one of Freed’s contact sheets depicting scenes that David Gonzalez, who writes for The New York Times photography blog “LENS,” described as looking like real-time scenes from the recent “Madmen” TV series.
When Gonzalez asked Brigitte Freed (who made the prints) about the photos, she agreed about the similarities regarding “Madmen,” but then added: “I never thought it was anything special. What I thought was really special were the first pictures he made of the Jews of Williamsburg (1954). Those were mind-boggling for me, since I had never seen that before. The party people in New York? I just took them for granted.”

(Click here to see more photos from Leonard Freed’s series of photos while in Rome and shots from his “The Jews of Williamsburg” documentary series.)

All photos courtesy of Brigitte Freed.

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