Realty and Realities

An Interview with Ed Freeman

By Ed Freeman, Paul Schranz Back to


Today the old adage,“You only get to go around once in life” is often irrelevant, as a number of highly accomplished photographers came through a doorway into a second career. This observation led to the first of a series of questions we recently asked Ed Freeman, whose earlier incarnation was musician, arranger and producer named on some pretty famous record albums.

PS: From a successful career in the field of music, how did you move to photography?

EF: I’ve been playing instruments since age six and taking pictures since age ten. Both have been central to my life ever since, so it really wasn’t so much a move as a slight shift in emphasis.

Many photographers started out as musicians— the most famous, of course, being Ansel Adams. Some of his contemporaries considered him to be even more gifted as a concert pianist than as a photographer. Maybe it’s that both art forms require a certain innate feel for mathematics; maybe it’s something much deeper or more unexplainable than that. But the connection between the two is unmistakable.

PS: A quick glace at your book titles mistakenly reads REALITY—but look again, and it’s actually the word REALTY. Can you explain the concept, as obviously “reality” is a mindset for how you see these buildings?

EF: The names are actually Desert REALTY and Urban REALTY, but the pun and the tendency to misread the name are both very intentional. These pictures are anything but real, although they’re put forth with a kind of earnestness that might make you want to override your own disbelief or feel awkward about questioning my truthfulness.

That’s the point.

The pictures are fabrications, but I’m asking you to believe them. And I find that most people still WANT to believe them, even after they learn that they’re not real. Fascinating…

Ed Freeman, landscape photography, photo montage, photo technique
Factory, Los Angeles, CA

I’m really not interested in pulling the wool over anybody’s eyes. The reason for all the manipulation is my genuine appreciation for these buildings. I really do love them—the old, decrepit ones and the new, gaudy ones; the abandoned shacks in the desert and the plastic fast food eateries in the big city. I get downright excited when I find crumbling one-room shacks in the desert or an especially iconic Pizza Hut. Sometimes, it’s the special love that a parent has for an ugly child.

Other times, it’s more of a feeling of compassion or sympathy or amusement. But mostly, I just think these buildings are really cool and worthy of being seen for what they are—modest, poignant, funny, bold attempts at immortality that are in varying stages of decline. I think they deserve our attention.

How to accomplish that? My solution has been to strip away the surroundings and let the building breathe—let it be seen in an ideal, even idyllic setting. Lavish on it the kind of obsessive, painted-over perfectionism that is normally reserved for Hollywood film stars. Remove every distracting element and present it as a polished, architectural model of itself. All this grooming comes with a side effect: just like any over- retouched fashion ad in Vanity Fair, the pictures end up pushing your credulity to the very limit. They ignite all sorts of debates about honesty and integrity and journalism versus imagination and idealism and artistic license—which I find interesting, if ultimately inconclusive.

Ed Freeman, landscape photography, photo montage, photo technique
Quonset Hut, Trona, CA

PS: While presented as cultural icons, the buildings you select seem to have some connection with a different ideal. The clouds in the image of the graffiti factory appear slightly exaggerated from reality and more ominous. Are the environments you create reflective of that ideal as well? How did you select buildings and the environments in which to place them?

EF: You’re familiar with the expression, “Shoot first and ask questions later?” That applies to me —and I suspect many other photographers. I take pictures of things and places that resonate with me—for reasons I’m not always entirely aware of. When I open them in the computer, the question is always the same: not, “What do I want to do to this image?” but “What does this image want me to do to it?”

I’m not in the business of dictating; I’m in the business of taking dictation. I have a whole lot less of a political or intellectual agenda than most people think; I just look at any given image and it talks to me, it tells me what it wants. Sometimes I know where I’m going, sometimes I don’t. If I don’t, I just trust my instincts. I might experiment with a dozen different skies until I find one that works. Why does one sky work and another one not work? I have no idea, but the difference is easy to tell. I keep trying different skies until the building says, “I’ll take THAT one, thank you.” I’m just following instructions.

You could accuse me of not understanding what I’m doing, and you might be right. I don’t understand a lot of other things either—I don’t know why we’re here on earth and what love is and why there’s so much suffering in the world. But I don’t think my job is to understand. That’s what critics and philosophers and preachers are for. My job is to just to get things done. And I’m absolutely passionate about what I do; in fact, I’m obsessed with it. But I admit I’m not always entirely clear about just what that is.

Ed Freeman, landscape photography, photo montage, photo technique
Cal -Tex Auto Parts, Coachella, CA

PS: Since technique is a large part of the philosophy of this magazine, can you discuss the selection process, the treatment of the building images and the backgrounds, and finally what you hoped to get from this merging, aesthetically and emotionally?

EF: All I’m really doing is taking snapshots. I take pictures of things that interest me without stop- ping to ask why. But when I look through the viewfinder at what is in front of the lens, I don’t see an image, I see a Photoshop file. I don’t see what’s THERE; I see what’s GOING to be there once I’m finished with it. I see masking possibilities and adjustments. I see selections, layers, compositing options. Photoshop is the center of my creative process. In fact, when I’m taking pictures, I don’t even call it “photography;” I jokingly refer to it as “data acquisition.” It’s only a slight exaggeration. I would never suggest that my way of seeing things and doing things is right for everybody. In fact, my favorite photographers are people like Sebastiao Salgado and Edward Weston whose philosophies and working methods are diametrically opposed to mine. But their intent and my intent are quite different. Their intent is to observe; my intent is to wander off into the wilderness.

PS:Our readers also appreciate information about specific equipment used in the creation of the body of work.

EF: Formerly, I shot with a Nikon F100 and 100- speed transparency film—whatever brand I was partial to that particular week (it changed reg- ularly). I scanned my chromes on an Imacon scanner. Almost all the Desert Realty images were done that way. These days, I shoot Urban Realty (and other) pictures with a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III and a 24 – 105 f2.8 Canon zoom (occasionally the 70 – 200 f2.8 zoom).

The camera is probably overkill for me since I don’t know what half the buttons on it do, but I’m a glutton for file size. I sift through my exposures with Photo Mechanic and process the chosen ones in Photoshop CS5. I have a Mac Pro with four gigs of RAM (could use more) a Wacom 6×8 tablet (don’t leave home without it) and an Eizo ColorEdge monitor (which I am totally in love with). I don’t use any third-party plugins except Nik Color EFX Pro, and that only rarely.

PS: What’s your current direction?

EF: Well, these days I have a studio/gallery of my own—on a beautiful, historic walk street in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. Visitors (and paying customers) are warmly welcomed…

About the Authors

Ed Freeman
Ed Freeman, photography
Ed Freeman worked in music for 25 years, including writing arrangements for Carly Simon and Cher and producing Don McLean’s American Pie. Entirely self-taught, he says every note he ever wrote or played as a musician informs every photograph he has ever taken. His photographs are exhibited in galleries, museums and collections across the country. Desert Realty (Los Angeles Times 2003, Chronicle Books 2007).
Paul Schranz
Paul Schranz is a photographer and a photographic educator. He holds a BFA in photography from Ohio University, Athens, OH and an MFA in photography from Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL. He is Professor of Art Emeritus, Governors State University, University Park, IL, where he taught photography and digital imaging. He exhibits nationally and has received grants for documentary projects from the Illinois Arts Council. He is the former Editor of photo technique and Director of Mesilla Digital Imaging Workshops. Schranz is currently a faculty member at Dona Ana Community College, Las Cruces, NM, where he teaches advanced digital imaging, photographic composition, digital printing, image enhancement and manipulation.