Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Capturing Black Culture on Film

Capturing Black Culture on Film
By Bill Nichols - 1982

Roland Freeman is driven by dreams that can hide in the guise of demons.

Just watch him as he talks. He coils and uncoils in his chair, tenses his body or tosses back his head in a horselaugh, all depending on the mood of the moment, as a stream of ideas flow forth, racking his body like the pains of labor.

He's a man driven by a vision of history.

Southern Roads/City Pavements, the exhibit of this acclaimed photographer's work on display at the Old Capitol Museum, offers a major clue toward understanding Freeman's artistic obsession. It's the latest compilation of work from an artist/documentarian who intends nothing less than crystallizing the black experience within a lens frame before it is buried like a relic of a lost civilization.

That dream pushes this young black photographer all over the world in search of black culture. Southern Roads/City Pavements pairs pictures shot in 13 counties in southwest Mississippi with photos of urban New York, Baltimore and Chicago, and Freeman is certain of the similarities, the shared tradition, even of the most dissimilar places.

He's developed an eye for the black soul. But it wasn't always that way.

Freeman was born some 44 years ago in Baltimore in the midst of the Depression and lived the street life to the fullest until he was 13, when he was sent to live on a Maryland tobacco farm. It was there he learned the love for the land that is so evident in his pictures of rural farmers.

He grew up some more, joined the Air Force, won a Brownie camera in a crap game and became interested in a growing American civil rights movement. One march led to another until Aug. 28, 1963.

The march on Washington occurred that day and would forever more change Freeman's life.

"I was so choked up watching that march that I knew I wanted to say something," Freeman said. Photography quickly revealed itself as his voice.

The Poor People's Campaign March
"Most people starting photography don't know what they want to say," Freeman said, reminiscing about his start. "I knew from the beginning." He studied the work of Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava, tried and experimented for about five years and in 1968 found himself documenting the Poor People's Campaign march from Marks to Washington, D.C.

The Farm Security Administration documentaries from the Depression fascinated this young artist. "I thought to myself, `If white people were hurting this much, hell, what were the black folks doing?' "Freeman said.

He went on to work for Life Magazine, string for the prestigious Magnum photographic service in Washington and generally become "a pretty hotshot Washington photographer," in Freeman's words.

Yet his real vocation had yet to begin. He always had been fascinated by black traditions in Baltimore, and began photographing street scenes during off-hours. "I didn't even realize what I was doing was folklore," he said as he laughed about his beginnings in the documentary trade.

The Smithsonian Institution knew better. In 1972, Freeman was asked to contribute pictures to the Smithsonian's yearly folklore festival. That association led him to a job in 1974, shooting pictures in Mississippi for the 1974 festival, and finally his own project in 1975, called the Mississippi Folklife project, which Freeman worked on with folklorist Worth Long, a man Freeman calls a brother, "one of those elusive geniuses."

All of which led Freeman down the path to Southern Roads/City Pavements, an extension of the work he began with Long in 1975. The exhibit opened in the New York international Center of Photography before coming to Jackson and New York Times photo critic Gene Thornton described his work as going, "beyond reportage to express something that is universal and lasting."

That pleased Freeman immensely, but the drive goes on. Much remains to be done. After all, this is a man who describes his creative process as "working on raw guts. I work on a lot of nervous, mad energy."

He wants to catalog a black heritage he is intensely proud of, a tradition he maintains exists in spite of the black migration from the South to the economic opportunities of the city.

A city boy by birth, Freemen loves the simplicity and honesty of farm people and that love shines forth in his work.

"What some people call hick is hipper than the people who think they're hip," he said.

The anger he felt in the civil rights period has transformed into the objectivity of the documentarian. "I'm interested in how black people have survived. We've been subject to a mass conspiracy through the Western world, yet we've managed to educate people, sustain a culture and move into mainstream American life," he said.

Southern Roads/City Pavements will remain at the Old Capitol Museum until March 14, but Roland Freeman's work will go on the rest of his life. Commercial assignments, for clients like the World Bank, pay his bills, and his documentary work keeps the energy flowing.

Freeman leaves you certain of his belief in his art. His eyes glaze, the hands swirl in an inadequate attempt to describe what only a photographer's eye can conjure.

The demons subside, the dreams are given form, molded with the press of a finger, the quiet click of a tiny shutter.

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