Dive Into Ed Freeman's Wet and Wondrous World
The artist discusses his evolving practice and longtime obsession with all things "epic"
The afternoon before my interview with photographer Ed Freeman, the sky over New York City was filled with an otherworldly milky light as the sun began to set, almost like it was pouring straight out of one of the Aelbert Cuyp paintings at the Met. We’d been getting crazy skies like that all week. A friend told me it was because of the smoke that had blown on the jet stream all the way across the continent from wildfires in California.
When I describe the effect to photographer Ed Freeman on the phone from Los Angeles the next morning, I can hear him perk up the same way that a record collector will snap to attention if you mention seeing a box of old soul 45’s at a thrift shop across town. “I remember when Mt. Pinatubo blew up,” he says, wistfully recalling the 1991 volcanic eruption in the Philippines. “We had spectacular sunsets for a year.”
Freeman is a connoisseur of light. Over his 30-year career as a fine art photographer he’s captured all kinds of light: heavenly light, moody light, the shimmering atmosphere of Los Angeles, the hard-edged sunshine of the midday desert. This fascination with light—apparent in the featured series titled "Underwater"—is maybe the one common thread that pulls together his entire body of work, which has covered so many subjects and styles that if you didn’t know better you might guess that it was the work of four or five different photographers.
A lot of his photos capture the human body in hyper-observant erotic detail; a lot of them don’t have any people at all. Some are saturated with color, while others are rendered in storm-dark sepia tones. Part of Freeman’s meandering artistic path is at least partly a byproduct of being self-taught. “I never understood that you were supposed to specialize,” he explains. “You know, you're supposed to shoot cars or still life or food or fashion or whatever. I didn't know that. I just thought you photographed everything, so I went out and photographed everything.”
“Except cars,” he adds, emphatically. “I hate cars.”
Freeman’s wandering eye as a photographer reflects an overall nomadic approach to professional and creative life. He got his start in the fertile Boston folk music scene of the mid-'60s playing guitar and Renaissance lute. He was a performer for a bit, and was even briefly signed to Capitol Records, but he found himself drawn to behind the scenes work. During the '70s, he worked as an arranger and producer on albums by singer-songwriter icons like Carly Simon, Gregg Allman, and Tim Hardin, and found what he calls his “15 minutes of fame” producing Don McLean’s “American Pie.” (Somewhere in there he found time to fit in a gig as a roadie on the last Beatles tour, where he tuned the Fab Four’s guitars.)
Having a credit on a gargantuan hit like “American Pie” meant that Freeman would never have to worry about finding work in the music industry for the rest of his life, but he left the business while the soft rock wave he helped kick off was still cresting. “I was pretty successful at it,” he explains, “but I wasn't real happy doing it because I was working on other people's stuff. I wanted to be the artist, not the facilitator.”
Freeman spent part of the '80s exploring avant-garde electronic composition, then quit music entirely to open his own commercial photography studio in Hollywood. Instead of making platinum records, he took headshots for struggling actors for the next five years. Taking thousands of portraits—and selling travel photos to Getty Images to fund his round-the-world trips—“was like having somebody else pay for your education,” he says.
He finally put his education to use when a friend suggested that he hang some photos at the restaurant across the street from his studio. Pragmatically, he figured that he should shoot something special for the show instead of just hanging headshots of actors nobody would recognize. He was drawn to his first subject, the male nude, for an equally pragmatic reason: as a gay man he was dissatisfied with the “crappy” quality of photography in the gay magazines of the time. “I wanted to make erotic art for gay men that was as good as Playboy,” he says. He arguably did—an early shot of an alabaster-skinned nude man caught mid-dive into a pitch-black swimming pool earned a fan base of its own and was widely reprinted.
But it took until the late '90s, and the advent of digital photo editing software, for Freeman to really came into his own as a photographer. “I went to a show in San Francisco that was sort of the early manipulated photography and it was the worst crap I'd ever seen,” he recalls. “I said I'd never, ever do anything like that. Six months later I bought Photoshop. I messed around with one picture and when I was finished I thought, 'Oh my god. This is it.' I totally fell in love.”
Freed from the limitations of the physical darkroom, Freeman’s work quickly took on a hyperreal quality that comes out differently for each subject he’s tackled. For his Desert Realty series he drove what he estimates to be around 20 thousand miles of back roads across the western United States shooting abandoned trailers, shuttered bars, and other "easily ignored structures," then editing them into lonely landscapes whose emptiness hints at something bigger lurking outside the frame, like an apocalypse that’s already come and gone.
Although he doesn’t surf, or even swim, Freeman developed an obsession with taking pictures of surfers riding the waves, but shooting from dry land meant every composition had the horizon line running across it. “It's boring as shit,” he says, so he digitally comped in waves and swapped in more dramatic-looking skies to fill the frame with movement and give the composition an almost Biblical scale. “I didn't set out with some notion that I was going to make epic pictures of surfing,” he says. “It's just that I'm into epic. Epic whatever. So if I'm doing surfing, it's going to be epic surfing. If I'm doing nudes, it's epic nudes.”
Photoshop also allows him to remove any trace of the intensive effort that goes into his series of underwater nudes, which he says are so exhausting for the models that he can only shoot for ten minutes at a time. (Although he describes their downtime between shots as, “two dozen gorgeous naked people hanging out around a pool together eating catered lunches,” so it evens out.) Unlike his epic waves and lonely trailer homes, the swimming pool nudes are serene and sensual, his models hanging dreamily in space like Greek water nymphs at play.
And then there’s the light, which requires hours upon hours of careful adjustment in Photoshop to bring out of each image. Freeman says he’s influenced by painters like Rembrandt and Caravaggio more than any photographer, and it shows. His surfers ride waves under brooding, stormy skies shot through with numinous sunbursts like a Gustave Doré etching. Beat-down Walmarts and Pizza Huts bask in pools of heavenly radiance. And the swimmers seem to be suspended not in liquid but on currents of pure light full of delicate pastels and an otherworldly luminescence that comes closer than any photo I’ve seen to the unreal Aelbert Cuyp skies over New York the other day.
At 76, Freeman’s still following his unpredictable creative instincts wherever they lead. In the past they’ve taken him to palatial recording studios and dusty desert trailer parks, from homeless encampments in LA to the supernaturally beautiful beaches of Hawaii’s North Shore. Where they’ll take him to next is anyone’s guess, Freeman’s included. If there’s one thing we can learn from his story, it’s that you should stay loosely improvisational with your life plans, but exacting in your art.
“The one kind of picture I'm really almost incapable of taking,” he tells me, “is snapshots.”