ROLAND L. Freeman, the, Washington photographer, has been a peddler, a street fighter, a farmer, a marcher in the cause. Though his face does not appear in his photographs on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, they all feel like sel-portraits. We know him from his art.
Before he'd turned 13, he'd swung a hatchet in a street battle in Baltimore. He'd shot craps in the alleys, and stayed away from school, and been busted more than once. The painted drop of blood he wore so proudly on his jacket then was the badge of the Young Bloods.
His photographs have since appeared in Newsweek and Time. He has taught in universities and lived a while in Paris and received his share of grants. His official title nowadays is research associate and photographer-in-residence, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, Howard University. Yet in some ways, in important ways, Freeman has not changed.
In his life, as in his art, he has carried his past with him. The 107 photographs in "Southern Roads/ City Pavements," his traveling exhibit, may seem, at first glimpse, to chart an upward journey--the voyage of his people from countryside to city, from mule cart to Cadillac, from old cigar-box fiddle to Motorola stereo. But Freeman's striking pictures are not hymns to advancement. Not change, but continuity, is the theme of his exhibit. All photographs, and Freeman's, too, are relics of the instant. But Freeman somehow manages to acknowledge in the moment the presence of the past.
The deception of progression, the misleading contention that this work begat that one, has too long lent confusion to the history of art. In jazz, for instance, it is possible to sense a sort of sequence, a historical development, in the line that seems to run from the blues of Lemon Jefferson through Louis Armstrong's solos to the silence-studded chords of Thelonious Monk. But it is foolish to view Monk as a follower of Jefferson. They performed at the same time.
Freeman understands that strange temporal coexistence. His exhibition opens with an extraordinary shot of the Arabers of Baltimore, those patient traveling peddlers who still sell coal and ice and fish from their horse-drawn wagons on the city's streets. Three-quarters of the exhibition's pictures show a world that we all know, a place of office buildings, neon signs, cabs and trucks and traffic lights. But here the straight lines of that city's grid, of its window walls and lampposts, are thrown into confusion by the wonderful disorder at the picture's lower left, the sweet curves of the harness, the leaning wheels of the cart, the pony's knobby legs, the Arabers' sharp knees. This photograph, like many here, resonates in time.
His strongly composed portrait of Lee Willie Nabors, posing in his overalls between his patient mules, was taken after, not before, his equally strong picture of Lucy and Mary Ann Jackson riding in a limousine through the streets of New York. Nor does Freeman hint that those ladies all in white are more to be admired than that old Mississipi farmer. Echoes and cross-references, instead of linearites, give cohesion to his show. The plaster reindeer posing on the piano in Annie Mason's living room (she's a Mississippi quilter), and the similarly antlered deer that shows up in the velvet rug above the Motorola in a living room in Baltimore are there for the same reason. The children in white ties, dark suits and carefully tied bow ties lined up for inspection on the streets of Washington in "Muhammad Speaks" (1973) wear their uniforms as proudly as the white-clad Christians that he saw marching to the river in Spring Hill, Miss., in 1976.
The pictures on display were taken in the '70s. All have been on tour since first shown in Manhattan at the International Center of Photography in 1981. The subjects--gandy dancers, blacksmiths and well-dressed Northern sharpies--may seem to live in different worlds, but there is much they share. All of them are black, and conscious of community, and all of them have chosen to welcome Roland Freeman. The artist and his subjects belong to one culture, and to one brief slice of time.
Freeman's art is never arty. He once was photo editor of the D.C. Gazette, and he still makes his pictures with a journalist's succinctness. His work, at least in style, is not especially adventurous. His motive is to document, rather than to decorate. His photography is "straight."
Though Freeman, in his catalog, acknowledges how much he's learned from Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava, he seems to owe a debt as deep to the portraits of America made by Walker Evans and by Robert Frank. Evans' clean example is particularly apparent in Freeman's well-lit still lifes of wood stoves and of bedsteads and of family mementos pinned to Southern wooden walls. And Frank's spirit may be sensed in some of Freeman's urban pictures--of bikers in the park and of parked, abandoned cars. But these two men were outsiders. The people Freeman photographs utterly accept him. He is of them, not apart from them. He has lived the life they lead.
Cornell Capa, executive director of the International Center of Photography, has rightly described Freeman as "a witness documentarian," and has rightly called his show, which closes March 13, "a visual autobiography." Freeman's exhibition is a poignant pleasure.
Those interested in seeing and hearing him may do so at an open forum entitled "Currents in Black American Culture: Photo Documentation for Historical Preservation." It's at the Corcoran today from 2:45 to 5 p.m.; seating is limited.