Roland L. Freeman

Roland L. Freeman (born 1936) was an American photographer devoted to recording the lives of rural and urban African Americans. His photographs comprised a social history beginning with the era of the civil rights movement.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1936, Roland L. Freeman was sent from the streets of an urban environment to a southern Maryland tobacco farm at age 13 by a loving mother who foresaw disaster for him if he did not get away from the city. In 1954, as a member of the U.S. Air Force, he took his first pictures with a Brownie Hawkeye camera. However, he did not stick with photography at that point. Later, in 1963, he decided that photography would be his medium, and he had his first one-man show six years later.

Freeman's emphasis on documenting the African American urban and rural experience began with the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. On that date 200,000 African and white Americans gathered in a peaceful protest to pressure the U.S. government to guarantee African Americans legal equality. Inspired by that event, Freeman decided to use the medium of photography to report on the lives of ordinary people.

Began with Borrowed Camera

He became familiar with the photographs of Gordon Parks. His work was influenced by Roy DeCarava, whose pictures of family life in a Harlem tenement reminded Freeman of his own family. Through a chance meeting with photographer Burk Uzzle, Freeman began his photographic career with a borrowed camera. He began working for the D.C. Gazette in 1967 and was the newspaper's photo editor from 1968 to 1973.

In 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., he photographed the mule-train march of the Poor People's Campaign from rural Mississippi to Washington, D.C., as a Southern Christian Leadership Conference photographer. That experience crystallized his commitment to be a witness documentarian of the changes in the lives of African Americans as new civil rights legislation opened doors that previously were closed to African Americans.

Documented the South

Using his camera as a tool of research as well as a form of creative expression, Freeman travelled through the backwoods of the rural South, gaining the trust of African American artisans and craftsmen who permitted him to photograph intimate details of their lives. He photographed African American congregations going to river baptisms, railroad workers laying tracks, blacksmiths at work and at home, and quilters with their wares. Presenting intimate closeups of their faces, homes, and daily activities, he presented not only a concentrated experience of the way African Americans view their world, but also a vision of a good life lived in small communities by loving people with satisfying work.

His sensitive portrayals were not, however, limited to one racial group. Some of his finest pictures were a "White Ghetto" series made in his native Baltimore. In those photographs, Native Americans and poor whites from Appalachia turn their backs or loll defiantly in front of Freeman's camera, touching each other reassuringly as they face his lens. One biting image shows a couple asleep on a dirty mattress in a dark room, arms entwined, mouths gaping as if dead or drugged.

During the 1970s Freeman became the Washington stringer for Magnum Photos, Inc. and worked for various magazines, such as LIFE, Black Enterprise, and Essence. These experiences helped give his work the journalist's succinctness. He also taught photography to students at such universities as George Washington and Howard and directed the Mississippi Folk Life Project.

Among his 12 one-man shows and eight group shows, two of Freeman's exhibitions were circulated nationally and internationally on extended tours. "Folkroots: Images of Mississippi Black Folklife" (1974-1976) opened in Mississippi and subsequently toured museums and galleries around the country. In 1981 "Southern Roads/City Pavements: Photos of Black Americans," one of his finest accomplishments, opened at the International Center of Photography in New York City. The result of a study of the African American experience from 1968 to 1980, it featured the Baltimore Arabers (street vendors), citified residents in fancy hats, close-ups of serious youth, and Mississippi folk life. This exhibition toured city and college museums across America during two separate national tours, gaining wide critical acclaim. According to the New York Times, "(Freeman's) pictures are in the tradition of Walker Evans and the other photographers of the Farm Security Administration." In 1982 the U.S. Information Agency sponsored a three-year African and European tour of the exhibition.

Quilts Caught Eye, Imagination

African American quilters captured Freeman's imagination and held it fast for more than two decades. In his 1996 book, A communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers and Their Stories, documents his foray into the world of African American quilts. The book describers the comfort Freeman found in quilts as a child and continues to explain how the man became intrigued and impassioned by quilts, quiltmakers, and their stories. In fact, when Freeman was diagnosed with cancer in 1991, he sought "healing" from quilts.

For his work behind the camera, Freeman was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Black Arts Festival through its 1994 Living Legend Award. Freeman worked for Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, the London Sunday Times, and Paris Match. He was a research photographer for the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies. He also was invited to be the Eudora Welty Visiting Professor of Southern Studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi for 1997.

Further Reading on Roland L. Freeman

Freeman's work appeared in the Black Photographers Annual, Vol. 2 (1974). More information can be found in two of his exhibit catalogues: City Pavements/Country Roads (1979) and Southern Roads/City Pavements (1981). See also Freeman, Roland L., A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and their stories, Rutledge Hill Press, 1996.