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Leonard Freed was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 23 October 1929 to working-class Jewish parents of Eastern European descent. Although Freed initially wanted to be a painter, he enrolled at the New School and studied in the famous ‘design laboratory’ of Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper’s Bazaar. After his studies, Freed went hitchhiking through Europe and North Africa and took up photography to finance himself.
Freed’s first major project concerned New York’s Hasidic Jews. Although not religious, Freed had been raised in a Jewish household and maintained an interest in his cultural roots. He moved to Amsterdam in 1958 and photographed the Jewish community there. He went on to publish several books about the Jewish communities of Europe. Another of the major thematic concerns of Freed’s work was the Civil Rights movement in America. He documented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and their battle against discrimination and segregation. Notably he photographed Martin Luther King Jr’s march across the United States from Alabama to Washington and children playing in the streets of New York when the racial divisions in the city led to ghettoization in the 1950s and 60s.
When Freed was still a young photographer, the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, Edward Steichen, was impressed by his work and bought three of his photographs for the museum. Steichen told Freed to remain an amateur to avoid his work becoming dull when professional and to “preferably be a truck driver”.
Freed’s photographs of the day to day running of a police department resulted in his exhibition The Spectre of Violence at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, in 1973. The entrance to the exhibition was through black curtains, after which a flash went off in front of a photograph of a corpse in order to feel like a crime scene. The exhibition highlighted the similarities between Freed and the mid-century New York reportage photographer, Weegee. Freed also mounted the exhibition What is Man? at the Benedictine convent in Cockfosters, London, in response to Steichen’s ground-breaking The Family of Man exhibition.
Freed joined the Magnum Photos agency in 1972 and went to photograph the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the crisis in Israel in 1967-8. He produced many photo-essays and over twenty books covering themes such as Spain after Franco and the North Sea oil industry. His work was characterised by his documentary but sympathetic approach to the people and their way of life in the multiplicity of locations he visited. He died on 26 November 2006 in Garrison, New York.