"New Orleans, Louisiana," 1965, by Leonard Freed. © Leonard Freed / Magnum Photos, Inc. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Kristina Feliciano interviewed Brett Abbott, curator of photography at the Getty, about their summer show Engaged Observers

Abbott succeeds in saying not a lot (it is a brief interview). Abbott lists the exhibit’s famous photographers and recounts the Getty mantra on commitment financial muscle to support acquire documentary photography.

That said, his analysis of Leonard Freed’s image (below) is pause for thought.

KF. What are some of your personal favorites of the photos on view in the show?
BA: Leonard Freed’s picture of two men passing one another on the street in Washington D.C.:  Freed’s protagonists face off, their noses nearly touching on the two dimensional surface of the print.  The older white gentleman occupies a commanding presence in the center of the photograph, but it is the African American on the right who is in focus.  Within the context of Freed’s larger project on racial tension in America in the 1960s, they can be seen as representing basic and opposing forces of the civil rights movement: white and black, the old generation and the new, center stage and marginalized, present and future.  Indeed, the two play out this dialectic beneath a balcony clearly marked as belonging to the house where Lincoln died.

"Washington, D.C., 1963" Leonard Freed (American, 1929 – 2006) © Leonard Freed / Magnum Photos, Inc. Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Leonard Freed observed race in America throughout the sixties; this work eventually taking him to the prisons of Louisiana. Before we get to that, here’s how Magnum describes Freed’s best known work:

In 1962 Leonard Freed went to Berlin to shoot the wall being erected. There he saw an African American soldier standing in front of the wall and it struck him; that at home in the US, African Americans were struggling for civil rights, and here in Germany an African American soldier was ready to defend the USA. This prompted a lengthy examination by Freed of the plight of the African Americans at home in the United States. Freed traveled to New York, Washington, D.C. and all throughout the South, capturing images of a segregated and racially-entrenched society. The photos taken at that time were then published in 1968 in “Black in White America“.

The images below are from prisons within the same state, Louisiana.

New Orleans, Louisiana. 1963. City prison. Image Reference: NYC21690 © Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

Freed’s documents of the New Orlean’s City Prison are galling. The mood and theatre played out by these women (inmates? nurses? orderlies?) in the “white female quarters” as compared to the claustrophobia and groping along the “colored tier” is confusing, appalling.

I am at pains to know what scene Freed is capturing here in the “white female” section.

The screengrab (below) is taken from the first of two online videos – here and here – in which Freed talks about contact sheets; money and its’ substitute; motivations; and of course, race.

Freed discusses his experience on the “colored tier” from 4:36 to 6:00.

The attitude of the guards is beyond disgusting, “If we desegregate this place there will be blood. Mixing white men with animals. Can’t make us do that.”

If we take Freed at his word, and there is no reason not to, the portrait he paints of Angola was a place where Black men were willingly left to stew; a place where overcrowding was used as a disciplinary tactic, and a place in which racism was the unifying policy. Foul, totally foul.


That Freed should have visited a prison in the South as part of his survey on race in America was logical, for perhaps in prisons – more than anywhere else – the least tolerant and most simple interpretations on race existed.

Even today, prisons perpetuate cycles of poverty in minority groups. Furthermore, prison facilities only harden the tensions and misgivings between different racial groups of the prison population.

Freed went to Louisiana, but prisons across the South during the sixties were much of a muchness; they were borne from the same structures that had informed slavery. Robert Perkinson is perhaps the best historian to map this institutional-metamorphoses. In it’s basic premise, his recent book Texas Tough, can apply to prison management not only in Texas, but right across the South.

I highly recommend Marie Gottschalk’s review of Perkinson’s book which summarises his key positions, and is shocking enough in and of itself.

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PhotoInduced just reviewed Engaged Observers.

NPR ran a gallery pertaining specifically to the Engaged Observers exhibition.


Bruce Silverstein and Lee Gallery present Freed’s works online.