HARPSWELL, Maine — He has photographed President Dwight D. Eisenhower, surrealist painter Salvador Dali and actress Sophia Loren, to name a few.
His photos have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vogue and National Geographic, among other publications, in nearly 80 countries.
At 87, Robert Freson, a Belgium-born photojournalist who has lived on Bailey Island since 1998, is seeking a home for his life’s work: thousands of photos that stretch across 60 years.
Or as he calls them, his “children.”
“I would like to eventually find a home, a reliable, suitable institution in Maine, that could take over my best images,” Freson said Monday evening at his hillside home overlooking Merriconeag Sound and Casco Bay. “You work 60 years on certain subjects, they become your children in a way, and you don’t want your children to be abandoned or destroyed.”
A small fraction of Freson’s work is on display at the Frontier Cafe at 14 Maine St. in Brunswick through May 5, portraying the contrast between the everyday life of people in Ireland and India, in photos he made for magazine and newspaper assignments in the 1960s and 1970s.
But a majority of his work rests in his large, multiroom basement workspace, where dozens of framed photos line shelves, and cabinets are stuffed with slides.
“I have a half a million photographs, of which there are around 15,000-20,000 images I would like to pass on after my death,” Freson said, pausing briefly before saying the last word. “I don’t like the [phrase] ‘pass on.’ We don’t ‘pass on,’ we just die, damn it.”
Freson may not be working on larger assignments, but he said he is still active, making photos at surrounding fairs and other events. He said he and his wife, Jeannette, chose to live on Bailey Island, where their daughter, Babette, takes care of them, because of its natural surroundings.
Freson’s career in photojournalism began in 1948, when he immigrated to New York after living through Germany’s occupation of his country during World War II. Before leaving, he served with the British Navy and attended a photography school in Switzerland, where he met his wife.
“I came to New York with a suitcase, a wife and $100 in my pocket,” he said.
While Jeannette, a paper sculpture artist, worked on displays for stores like Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s as the breadwinner for a few years, Freson began working for world-renowned photographer Irving Penn, first as an assistant and later as a studio manager.
During his time with Penn, which ended in 1961, Freson was on the set of photo shoots with subjects such as Pablo Picasso, President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“He’s in the top class of photographers, died at 92, and he was working only a week before,” Freson said of Penn. “Photographers work later in their life. It’s like all artists: they don’t retire, they die working.”
Eventually Freson went out on his own. He moved to France for a couple decades and became a freelance photographer.
“I always decided I wanted to stay independent to be able to refuse work … and to keep control of all my work,” Freson said. “So all the photography I’ve done over the 60 years, I’ve kept the rights to them.”
Freson’s work introduced him to many people, places and events, including the Six-Day War in the Middle East, the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, the Queen of England, and Pope John Paul I, who only served for 33 days.
He photographed Eisenhower for a portrait and while walking the Gettysburg battlefield for the late president’s biography. Freson also fondly remembers meeting the famed astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, in 1978 while on assignment for the London Sunday Times.
“To me that was an extraordinary meeting,” he said, “When I went to Cornell University … we got into a long conversation, and he showed me the plaque he had designed that was attached to the Voyager [spacecrafts], giving an identification for where they came from, thinking eventually in space they may land in the hands of someone else.”
What’s fantastic about being a photojournalist, he said, is having very important people “at your mercy.”
“It’s a very privileged position,” Freson said, “and in a sense, those people who are in a very high function are the most humble ones.”