Louis Draper and Leonard Freed Reflect on What It Means to Be “Black in America”
Photo: Summer, New York, 1961. Louis Draper (American, 1935–2002). Gelatin silver print; 27.9 x 35.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund, 2016.272. © Louis H. Draper Preservation Trust. (detail)
The photograph is more than a work of art: it is a piece of evidence, a document of fact, and an artifact of the past. It offers proof of what has transpired in time and space, for seeing is believing—and belief is faith. To shoot or not to shoot, that is the question, for what we focus our attention on grows in power and strength. To frame a story through just one perspective, or to never frame it at all, these acts have the power of changing the way people see the world.
Photographers Louis Draper (1935-2002) and Leonard Freed (1929-2006) understood this, each in their own way using the camera as a way to write history. Together they created fresh perspectives that were heretofore largely ignored in favor of the spreading of malicious lies, telling the truth about what it means to be Black in America.
In honor of their legacies, the Cleveland Museum of Art presents Black in America: Louis Draper and Leonard Freed, a new photography exhibition currently on view now through July 30, 2017. The exhibition has been organized as part of a year-long commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Carl Stokes’ election as the first African American mayor of Cleveland.
Black in America shines light on the ways in which photography can be used as a tool of activism by anyone so inclined to bare witness to history. Draper, who was born outside Richmond, Virginia, spent the first two decades of his life living under the apartheid laws of Jim Crow. He moved to Harlem in 1957, where he began photographing the people of his world, such as Langston Hughes, his neighbor. In 1963, Draper became a founding member of the Kamoinge Workshop, the longest-running photography group in the United states, which dedicated itself to documenting the African-American experience.
Being a photographer drove Draper to create a singular body of work that spoke not only to and of his people but for himself. Being a photographer led him to “realize that what I felt had worth; that I could make strong statements about the world in visual terms and that these images did in fact move people emotionally.” Indeed, it is the emotional connection that speaks to our hearts and our souls, allowing us to feel one with something greater than ourselves.
It is this emotional understanding that led Leonard Freed beyond his working class Jewish roots. While covering the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, he photographed an African American soldier on duty—and then it hit him. Here was a man giving his life for a country that upheld apartheid. Freed returned to the United States with a sense of purpose: a desire to document African American life during Jim Crow.
He started documenting black life in his own backyard, looking at African American neighborhoods in New York City suffering through de facto segregation. Then he headed South where Jim Crow raged, documenting the Civil Rights Movement as it came to the fore with the March on Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In 1968, Freed published his seminal volume, Black in White America, one of the earliest major photographic works to speak truth to power.
Black in America weaves a spellbinding thread through the worlds of Draper and Freed, taking us on a journey through American history as seen by men, both black and white.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.