A Closer Look With Phil Freelon

An Architect's Photography

Juliette Harris

Photo by Phil Freelon.  Courtesy Craven Allen GallerySkull.  Photo by Phil Freelon.  Courtesy Craven Allen GalleryWorking Rust. Photo by Phil Freelon.  Courtesy Craven Allen GalleryFreelon clinched its reputation as the nation’s leading African American-owned architecture firm in 2009, when it won the commission to design the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture that opens on Mall in Washington DC in 2015. 

Its principal, Phil Freelon, also is a photographer, who invites us to take a closer look at the mundane fragments of our world and see how art is the world — an art of infinite and ever changing forms, patterns, textures and colors interacting with our senses and imaginations.  In Freelon’s photography, these bits of world are frozen with crisp detail in the moment.

 Cylinder.  Photo by Phil Freelon. Courtesy Craven Allen GalleryShelter and art are what Phil Freelon knows and does best.  Art, shelter and Freelon’s love and respect for the natural world, are connected in the Durham-based Freelon architectural firm’s numerous cultural and research lab projects,  design excellence awards and LEED certification.   They also connect in Structures, an exhibition of Phil Freelon’s photographs at Craven Allen Galley in Durham, April 13 – June 15, 2013.

During his frequent travel Freelon totes a Nikon D800 camera and tripod.   His eye is drawn to patterns in the built and natural environment: the rivets and shadows on an industrial cylinder,  the infrastructure of a disintegrating plant, rust working nails into a Thornton Dial-like composition. Sometimes the shot is more of a scenic vignette – a lone figure rowing down the Arno River, framed by the old buildings and bridges of Florence.

Freelon was introduced to black and white photography and dark room technique during his first job in an architect's office — a summer internship between his second and third year of architecture school.  He was fascinated by the process of capturing an image on film, developing the negative and printing the final photograph.  And now, “photography is one of the vehicles that I use to share my view of the world,” he says. 

Freelon invites the viewer to take a closer look at the familiar fragments of our world that, upon closer examination, are both “ambiguous and complex.”   In Structures, one form of ambiguity is evident in the visual beauty created by processes of deterioration.  

Freelon describes isolating an image from among “the infinite possibilities of subject matter,” as a process of timing, choice and composition: 

“Tripping the shutter confers importance to that moment.  This is the prerogative of the photographer and it is this element of individual choice that intrigues me. While the design of complex structures is necessarily a collaborative endeavor, photography is a solitary undertaking – until the time that the finished product is shared.”

Some of Freelon’s artistic sensibility goes DNA-deep.  During the late 1920s, his grandfather, Allan Freelon (1895-1960), developed a post-impressionist style that was unusual for African American artists of the period.  Allan Freelon went on to become a prominent artist and education in the Philadelphia area who was associated with the philosopher of the Harlem Renaissance,  Alain Locke.  

Phil Freelon’s partner, jazz singer Nneena Freelon, and daughter, artist Maya Freelon Asante, extend the family’s creative tradition into new dimensions.  Their current project is covered in the IRAAA+  Innovating Art Creation and Capitalization article.