Sometimes you see a photo that stops you in your tracks. It happened to me a couple days ago, while I was rummaging through the Smithsonian American Art Museum's online collection. Roland L. Freeman's gorgeous photograph of black bikers in a Baltimore, Maryland, park brought my browsing to a dead halt. It's magnificent.
Roland L. Freeman: Bikers take a break. Sunday afternoon in Druid Hill Park, Baltimore, Maryland, September 1973, from the series, Southern Roads/City Pavements. (Smithson-ian American Art Museum. Click directly on the photo to see a larger version.)
The image speaks to me on many different levels. As a photographer, I love the moment -- the smoke curling out of the mouth of the man on the left and from his cigarette; the easy, masculine grace of the man in the middle; on the left, the guy struggling with his Afro; the American flag helmets framing the scene; finally in the corner, the boy who seems to be more interested in the photographer (and, by extension, us) than in the moment.
The historian in me appreciates another kind of moment. The photo's aesthetic is shaped as much by the African-American cultural nationalism of the late '60s and early '70s as much as by the street photography of Roy DeCarava, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand. Without preaching, it celebrates black manhood, solidarity, and pride.
More personally, the photo could almost be a snapshot from my past. In 1973, I was the same age as he men in the photo. It was a different city, and I was hanging out with a different crowd, but, like the guy on the right, I was struggling with my Afro (metaphorically, in my case).
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Roland L. Freeman is one of America's most important living photographers. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, he began his career as a freelance photographer in the 1960's, photographing the Civil Rights Movement. Since then, he's been active in photojournalism, commercial work, and photodocumentation. He's probably best known for his ongoing project "While There Is Still Time," a study of black culture throughout the African Diaspora. He's published numerous photo books and has received many awards and fellowships for his photography.