Blue Greenberg: Freelon exhibit offers new perspective

Apr. 25, 2013 @ 04:19 PM

“Structure: Phil Freelon Photographs,” Craven Allen Gallery, 1106 ½ Broad St., Durham, through June 15. Gallery houors are Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information, call 919-286-4837.

Phil Freelon’s photographs are large, exact in detail and offer a fresh perspective on familiar places. As an example, in “Mutual Respect” we are looking at downtown Durham through the piers which are part of the outdoor plaza of the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance building. As a longtime Durham resident, I know this building well, but have never been in that particular spot and so had to be reminded of the photograph’s location.
This is Freelon’s debut exhibition. The afternoon I visited the gallery, he was there and offered to walk me through the show. It does not get any better, to see an exhibit with the artist as your guide. As we moved through the show we talked about photography and architecture; his remarks reflected the thoroughness of the artist and the thoughtfulness of the teacher. He said architecture is a blend of art and science; it is art with utility. He continued, “In high school I loved math and drawing and painting; today my photography is a serious hobby.” In fact he has taught photography at N.C. State’s College of Design and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the moment he is teaching at MIT and commutes to Boston once a week for his class.
Freelon’s show begins with a time-lapse video of some of downtown Durham’s iconic buildings like DPAC, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the SunTrust Building. He said the video, for him, is one more exploration of technology. We turned from there to “Deep Roots,” a photograph of one of the walls at the site of Washington’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Freelon is the architect of record for the museum and spends a number of days every week in Washington. In the photograph the construction wall is covered with scaffolding and colored chalk marks here and there; he explained the marks as construction information and the splatters of white as lime and sulfur seeping through. The wall is part of the museum which will be 65 feet below ground; in fact 50 percent of the building is underground. He said he does not bring his camera on site during working hours; this photograph was taken on a weekend.
John Bloedorn, director of the gallery, said Freelon develops his own images and is an obsessive perfectionist. Although there are a number of color images in the show, Freelon said he believes black and white is more powerful because the photographer can be distracted by color.
“Structure,” said Freelon, “is central to my design process, bringing a sense of order to the composition. My photographs examine the structure that exists all around us, both in the natural and built environment.” Emphasizing that point is “Structure in Bloom” which spotlights nature’s perfection in the gossamer spray of coral held up against a perfect blue sky. In another example, the artist stopped in front of “Cylinder at Dusk,” pointing out the lower rungs of the giant silo marked into segments by patterns of glistening rows of rivets. He said this simple yet powerful architectural element is yet another kind of structure. Straggling greens form a ring around its foundation setting up a conversation between the built and natural environment. The photograph, part of the American Tobacco campus, was shot at dusk and he said there seems to be thousands of shades of grey available when he works in black and white.
Between the structure found and the structure built into our environment, Freelon is intent on showing how they are constantly in conversation.
The show is an overview of Freelon’s interests; there are still lifes, landscapes and cityscapes. Many are from other countries, but his pictures of Durham are central to the exhibition. He stopped to explain several photographs taken at historic sites where the slave trade flourished. There is the site of the stone archway at Accra, Ghana, through which thousands of kidnapped Africans were sent to the West, and an underground dungeon, filled with water chest high, in Bahia, Brazil, one of the destination points. He said, “I could feel the spirit of those people as I stood on an observation platform taking my pictures.” Although these images are spread around the room there is no question these were pilgrimages and the artist was visibly touched. Seemingly not a part of these international visits, but certainly viscerally connected is Freelon’s view from the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Building which frames Durham’s downtown in the distance. N.C. Mutual is the oldest and largest African American life insurance company in the United States; it is an equal among Durham’s and North Carolina’s financial institutions. 
We stopped at a very beautiful image of his wife Nnenna, who is a world renowned jazz musician and a six-time Grammy nominee. He acknowledged her as his muse, but said his first inclination is not to photograph people. Obviously the family will not hear of it so as a compromise this is the one portrait in the show.
When Freelon talks about structure, it is as the architect/artist. His man-made designs take their cues from the structure in nature. His photographs also reflect that same urgency, to understand the basic structure of all things and bring them into compositional order.
Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.