By David Gonzalez and Fred R. Conrad
Leonard Freed’s photos from Harlem, Brooklyn and the historic 1963 March on Washington lay on a workroom table in the home he shared with his wife, Brigitte. She stood over the images — as she has over his reputation — with a slight smile of pride.
“All nice prints, right?” she said. “Some people don’t know how to print dark skin. They have faces, and they have to be recognizable. You have to print the face. My faces were always recognizable.”
Her own face may not be familiar, but she was crucial to Mr. Freed’s career — even before he joined Magnum — as he made historic images of the civil rights era (as well as shot numerous magazine assignments in Europe and the United States). Those photos would not have been seen if not for her — and not in the sense of the long-suffering hausfrau who kept the home fires warm while hubby was a dashing, globe-trotting photojournalist.
She was his printer.
Partners in art and love, she was by his side for decades, poring over contact sheets she made for exhibits and books (25, at last count). And since his death in 2006, she has continued to protect and promote his work, most recently participating in a symposium at the Library of Congress. A selection of his seminal work “Black in White America” is on display at the Leica Gallery in New York, featuring many vintage prints she made.
“I loved to print,” Mrs. Freed, 79, said. “It was a passion. I saw his contact sheets before he did. I’d make them right away. Sometimes I’d choose a frame with a green marker. I couldn’t help myself. We’d discuss the pictures. I saw a lot of his pictures, and he taught me how to see.”
That was part of their relationship from the night they met in Rome in 1956. She met him while she was on vacation, staying at a youth hostel. He had just gotten to Rome from Naples, where he had been on assignment for Look magazine. He approached her one night in a garden.
“We talked and he asked me, ‘You want to see something?’ I said sure,” she said. “We went for a walk in the middle of the night. He showed me a gate with a keyhole and told me to look through it. You could see the dome of St. Peter’s.”
Though he was smitten, she did not give him her address back in Dortmund, Germany, and returned home. A few months later, he showed up on her doorstep, having traveled over the Alps on a Lambretta scooter. Ever resourceful, he had copied down her address from the hostel’s register.
When his scooter broke down, he spent time in Dortmund. At one point, he needed a darkroom to process and print some film he had shot on assignment in Belgium. She took him to a local lab, where she stood by him as he processed and, later, printed.
“I said, ‘Let me do that,’ ” she said. “He told me, ‘Oh, women can’t do this.’ ”
She laughed at the recollection.
“He didn’t know me very well. Women can’t do that? Right. I went out and bought a darkroom.”
She taught herself the basics. She would eventually learn more from Leonard after moving to Amsterdam, marrying and embarking on projects about the Jewish communities in Amsterdam and Germany. They returned to the United States — to Brooklyn — after Mr. Freed decided he needed to chronicle the civil rights movement. She remembers the conversation, which was after he had returned from Berlin, where he had made a photo of an African-American G.I. by the Berlin Wall.
“‘Brigitte, we have to go back to America. These terrible things are happening,’ ” she recalled. “It was the time of Birmingham, the fire hoses, the dogs, segregation.”
Settling into his parents’ home, he started working on the images that would become “Black in White America.” They later went to Washington to cover the march.
Decades later at home, she pulled out the binder that holds his contact sheets from that day. He shot a total of 17 rolls.
“Leonard was very disciplined,” she said. “He always was.”
So, too, was she. The work is impeccably organized and indexed. The prints are gorgeous.
“I’m German,” she said. “It has to be right.”
Her memories of that day are vivid. And she is still in touch with some of the people Leonard photographed, like Jackie Bond, who was a 15-year-old who appears in a triptych in “This Is the Day,” a chronicle of the march. She saw her just last week at the symposium in Washington.
“She’s 65 and brought her two children to the Library of Congress,” she said. “She was jailed five times! Her mother had told her, ‘Don’t do that,’ when she was a teenager. But she told her mother, ‘I want to!’ It didn’t stop her. She’s a very strong woman.”
And that is how some contemporary chroniclers of black America see Mrs. Freed. Jamel Shabazz, whose books “Back in the Days” and “A Time Before Crack” portray black and brown communities with love, said he had much respect for the work she did with Mr. Freed, who was an inspiration to him.
“She’s incredible because she printed what Leonard did,” said Mr. Shabazz, who exhibited his work alongside Mr. Freed’s in 2007. “She understood the reasons for why he took those pictures because she was by his side. She explained his process to me. She broke everything down.”
During a recent visit to her home, Mrs. Freed spoke with mutual affection for Mr. Shabazz, taking out some snapshots of a gathering with him at her home. Later, she showed some of Mr. Freed’s final pictures, taken from his bed, of a cat outside the house. Almost casually, she mentioned she had recently discovered some two dozen unprocessed black-and-white rolls stashed among Leonard’s belongings since his death.
“The pictures were of me, our daughter and the cats,” she said. “There were some from a birthday party. He even had a demonstration. A gay pride demonstration. I think I’ll make a book of his last pictures. I have enough now.”
This time, she’ll let someone else work in the dark.
“I have a very good printer.”
She should know.
Art Highlights is a blog about what's going on with me, my photography, and the art world in general.