Frank Goodyear knew the work of Robert Freson before he knew the man.
Goodyear, co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, worked as curator of photography at the National Portrait Gallery at Smithsonian Institution when the gallery acquired one of Freson’s photographs of Irving Penn. Penn was a great American fashion and portrait photographer of the mid-2oth century. Freson, now 92 and living in Harpswell, worked as Penn’s studio assistant from 1949 to 1962 in New York.
“The Portrait Gallery had a wonderful collection of Penn’s work, but we didn’t have a portrait of him. He was a private man. He was behind the camera, he was not in front of the camera. There are few great pictures of Irving Penn, but Bob had done it,” Goodyear said. “All of sudden, I realized he lived down the road and said, ‘We have to do something together.’ ”
The result of that collaboration is the new exhibition “Photographic Lives: Robert Freson, Irving Penn, and the Portrait” on view at Bowdoin through June 2. Student curator Ellery Harkness compares the practices of the two artists to demonstrate how two different approaches to portraiture reveal the range and complexities of the art form.
Penn worked in a controlled environment, bringing his subjects into his studio and placing them directly in front of his camera. His goal was to reveal something unique about the subject that indicated true personality. Freson worked like a journalist. He went to where his subjects lived or worked and photographed them active in their environment, often spending days with them.
He aimed high, earning audiences with kings, queens and presidents while specializing in the great visual artists of our time. The Bowdoin exhibition includes his portraits of Salvador Dali (swimming at his home in Spain with geese), David Hockney (working on a theater set) and the painter Joan Mitchell (smoking in her studio in France).
Harkness also is showing photos of James Baldwin, Sophia Loren and Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as several fashion and food photographs from throughout Freson’s career, balancing the images made by Freson with similar images, in subject and inspiration, by Penn.
Portrait work is a small but vital part of Freson’s career. Most of these portraits, he said, were made while he was working on other assignments. He came to the United States from Belgium after World War II with $100 and a dream of taking photos for Life magazine. He quickly realized that was a dream akin to moving to Hollywood and becoming a star. He had the enthusiasm, but lacked experience.
His 13-year career with Penn gave him the background and contacts he needed to succeed on his own. After leaving Penn’s employ in 1962, Freson worked as a freelance journalist, primarily for Look magazine, “because it had a more human approach to photography” than Life, as well for Esquire, National Geographic and the Sunday Times of London.
Most famously, he also become a best-selling author of books about fine French and Italian cuisine. Freson set the standards for food photography in the 1960s and beyond. He still gets royalty checks for his cookbook, ‘The Taste of France,” which was published in 1983. Beginning May 8, Frontier in Brunswick will show some of his photographs of food and open-air markets of Europe.
His approach to photographing food is much the same as photographing people. “I liked photographing food in the natural environment. I photographed all this food in the places where it was being made and always used daylight. I never use (artificial) lights,” he said. “I photographed grandmothers in their kitchens with corroded pots and pans that show the patina of life and use. To me, that tells more than a brand new beautiful pot on a beautiful table with with beautiful flowers. I wanted people who looked at my photos to feel the person and smell the food.”
As they talked, Goodyear marveled at the lives Freson has intersected in his career. “I’m just blown away by the unbelievable breadth of people you have met in your lifetime, and you have been eyewitness to the most extraordinary events, from Princess Di’s wedding to —”
“Even the funeral of Churchill,” Freson interjected, “to show you how far back I go.”
Freson photographed the English statesman’s funeral in 1965 as well as the wedding of the princess in 1981, both at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Freson is still working. On the day of this interview, he showed up with a camera around his neck. His only concession to age is that he uses digital technology instead of film. That said, he’s 92 – “92-and-a-half to be accurate,” he corrected – and nearing the end of his career. He is thrilled to be showing this work close to home. And apparently, so are his fans. Goodyear said the opening was packed, and there has been keen interest in the exhibition. “Bob knows a lot of people,” he laughed.
One of those who showed up was Tom Penn, the son of Irving, who flew up from New York for the opening. “I was extremely touched,” Freson said. “I have an immense amount of respect for his father. He made me what I am.”
WHERE: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 245 Maine St., Brunswick
WHEN: Through June 2; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday; 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday