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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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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.
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.”