Facing Forward: The Stark and Unwavering Portraiture of Charles Freger
When photographer Charles Fréger first stepped foot into a dairy industry school in Eastern France in 1999, he likely did not realize that he was taking his first steps into a decades-long anthology. Still a student himself of Rouen Beaux-Arts, he began to photograph the workers-in-training donned in hair nets and cream colored aprons and spotless rubber boots. Confrontational in nature, each subject was aligned parallel to the photographer, always looking straight into the viewer’s eyes. As a matter of fact, Fréger’s eventual overarching project was initially titled Facing.
It didn’t take long for the young photographer to develop a fascination with uniformity and identity. So, upon graduation, Charles Fréger began seeking out other “groups” of people – sumo wrestlers, hospitality workers, maintenance men, beauty queens. Although his subjects shifted, his clean-cut, forthright style remained the same. The subprojects quickly expanded, taking on the collective name Portraits Photographiques et Uniformes. Akin to August Sander’s photographic documentation of German citizens in the midsts of the Weimar Republic, the series took on the feel of a human inventory, carefully organized and thoughtfully recording snippets of life from around the world.
The project first gained traction with the release of the series Legionairres, which documents the uniforms and volunteers of the French Foreign Legion. Despite being composed of separate individuals, the work poignantly comments on the created collective identity of the volunteer soldiers.
Since that time, Charles Fréger’s traveled to every continent (excluding Antarctica) in pursuit of finding more diverse subjects. As a result, his work remains fresh despite his controlled, entirely predictable stylistic formula. For example Wilder Mann comes off as something straight out of a bizarre dream, documenting the unusual costumes of folk festivals from across Europe. Yet, the camera remains parallel, the subject’s gaze fixed on Charles Fréger – just as he styled scenes as a student nearly two decades ago.
The artist doesn’t simply make photographs and move on – he proudly displays his work at a variety of venues across Europe, North America, and Asia. Furthermore, he’s published over 25 individual limited edition photo books highlighting the smaller series within the Portraits Photographiques et Uniformes.
Drawing inspiration from art history, Charles Fréger likens himself to the generations of portrait painters that came before him, commissioned to replicate monarchs and wealthy patrons. Though he gravitates toward everyday people, he treats his subjects with the same reverence. As a result, his work’s appeal spans outside of insulated art communities and grabs the attention of the community at large. When we go through the same routine in the same environment every day, it’s easy to forget that not every person lives the way we do. By turning his camera on select “tribes”, committed to roles outside of our norm, Charles Fréger illustrates just how diverse and colorful we are as a species. At heart an anthropological study, his work shows that photographs aren’t just things of beauty – they’re tools that can be used to teach us about our innermost selves.