Aeroplanes looked different in the 1950s—the golden age of flying, as we now know it. Back then, travelling through the skies was nothing short of a grand affair. In fact, almost 70 years on, Ed Freeman still remembers his first journey. It was 16 hours from Boston to London. That’s almost 10 hours more than it’d take today—I imagine because we no longer need to stop at Nova Scotia, Iceland, and Ireland to refuel. “Pretty primitive,” Freeman describes. “Of course, we didn’t know any better. We thought, ‘Right, I can fly to London instead of taking a boat, wow!’”
He was 16 at the time when his parents handed him a passport, a bit of cash, and sent him off to see the world—in hindsight, an experience which he’d wish upon every teenager. The experience of a lifetime. “It affected me profoundly,” Freeman explains. “I went to France and Spain, which, of course, was more challenging back in those days. No one spoke English, there was no internet, no international phone calls. I was pretty much on my own. It was…” he pauses in search of the right words. ‘Panic attack’-inducing, I think to suggest to him but instead he proffers: “…exciting.”
That explains why Freeman set off on a third trip across the ocean while enrolled in university. “Just curiosity,” he reasons. “I wondered what Burma looks like, what Borneo looks like.” At this point, photography was still a hobby for him—he’d have a career in music and contemplate another in linguistics before making it a profession. “I probably shot like three rolls of film, so 36 pictures, [that entire trip]. Nowadays, I shoot 36 pictures before I get out of the airport.”
Film stayed expensive throughout the mid-60s—“a dollar-sixty a roll,” Freeman explains, expressing regret that he only carried one roll to capture what would be The Beatles’ last tour. “If only I knew then what I know now.”
Freeman made a name for himself as a folk singer in Boston when he made the acquaintance of Barry Tashian from The Remains—a rock-and-roll band taking the city by storm. And when The Remains were scheduled to be the opening act for The Beatles in ‘66, Freeman went along as their road manager. “In Boston, I was sort of a big fish in a small pool,” he says. “I went from that to being the smallest fish in the biggest pool there ever was… on Earth… ever.”
"When I was a musician, it all sounded like the same music. And actually, my photography looks a lot like my music sounds."
Even though the tour was shrouded in controversy—courtesy of the uproar sparked in the US when John Lennon infamously remarked, “We’re more popular than Jesus now”—and a disaster by many accounts, Freeman recalls nothing short of a spectacle. “I was just handling equipment, but it was extraordinary. Amazing. They were playing in stadiums with 60,000 people. It was mind-boggling.” With no official tour photographers, Freeman ended up taking one of the few shots, which still exist, capturing the world’s biggest band at their final outing.
By the end of it all, Freeman couldn’t imagine going back to Boston. Packed-out coffee houses no longer held the same allure now that he’d seen packed-out stadiums. He signed a record deal in Los Angeles, although it was with a band whom he’d never even played a show with—a band which broke up before releasing a single record, but the limbo was enough time for him to make the right connections and find work as an arranger. He found success in the field, producing for artists such as Cher and Carly Simon, and joining The Allman Brothers on a tour as their music director.
Over time, the lifestyle—writing music on score paper and moving faders around on the control board—proved to be far too sedentary. Freeman turned to the visual arts instead. “It’s much more physical. You’ve gotta do stuff. Ladder sitting there? Move it. Don’t like that chair? Move it,” he explains, recalling a quote that has been attributed to many a photographer over the years. “Photography is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent moving furniture.”
As stark a difference as this was compared to his days in the studio, the parallels between the two disciplines remained clearer still. “The aesthetic that I developed with my music translated one-hundred percent to photography, almost to the point where I couldn’t tell if I was making music or making images. I used to tell people ‘music goes into the ear-hole and photography goes into the eye-hole, but they end up at the same place inside your head.’”
For Freeman, the transition was all but seamless, and he maintains that it’s more common than one might imagine. “They are the same thing—they really are. There are so many photographers who are former or current musicians. If someone tells me they’re a photographer, I say, ‘Yeah? What do you play?”
In 1975, Steven Sasson, an engineer working for Kodak, created the first-ever digital camera. Freeman, like most others at the time, wasn’t sold on the technology. “I thought it was awful. The pictures looked terrible, the cameras were low-res, and I was just not interested.” For one, he had just come off of twenty-five years being a musician and working digitally. The last thing he wanted was to be near a computer again. “The first time I saw Photoshop, I laughed. I was thinking, ‘I will never do this’,” he recalls. “Six months later, I bought Photoshop.”
Today, Freeman’s left his days of film far behind, with some of his most acclaimed works treated to hundreds of hours of editing before ever seeing the light of day. “I’m totally immersed in digital photography now,” he says. “I’m a complete convert. The advantages of digital just overwhelm those of film.”
However, nostalgia does kick in as he speaks about a return to the darkroom. “If I had another lifetime—another several lifetimes—there are so many things I’d want to do. I’d love to shoot with Kodachrome, but no one really processes Kodachrome anymore. It’s just not manageable, which is a shame because it’s so, so beautiful. Digital photography doesn’t look like film, period.”
“I hope [film] never goes away,” he continues. “Even if its advantages are more subtle, I think it has a place in the world for those who are willing to do it. Not a very big place, but a place nonetheless. And that’s wonderful.”
‘That may not be the way surfing actually looks. But that’s the way it feels,’ reads the caption of one of Freeman’s collections. It depicts unbelievably immense waves—like the ones from that planet on Interstellar—and the minuscule surfers who dare test them. “I’m not concerned about the veracity of the picture,” he explains. “If you’re standing on the shore and looking at someone surf 200 yards away, it’s boring as hell. What I’m trying to do is let you see what’s wonderful about surfing, by whatever means I have to use.”
It’s the same approach he takes when photographing abandoned buildings for his Realty collections—altering surroundings and changing backdrops until their beauty becomes tough to ignore. “Well, that’s my job. It’s to see these buildings,” Freeman says. “Usually, people will drive by and just ignore them because of the pile of trash to the side or the car parked out front. What I do on the computer is I take all that out—it’s the Hollywood treatment. If you were being photographed in Vanity Fair, you’d get make-up done and you’d get styled, and that’s what I’m doing to these buildings. I’m not pretending these are authentic [photographs]. This isn’t journalism.”
Of course, before the hundreds of hours spent on Photoshop come the hundreds of miles spent travelling in search of these lost architectural marvels. Freeman laughs as I ask him whether he finds them on Google Maps before heading out in person. Apparently, street-view has little to say about the Texan backwaters and Californian deserts which these buildings tend to call home. “I try to look for small towns relatively far from the freeway. I remember, in Nevada, I’d drive a hundred miles to find them—and when I’d get there, there’d be one building that was interesting.”
It’s ironic, considering that Freeman first began shooting buildings in the interest of convenience. “I was out photographing landscapes in the desert, and landscapes only look good at dawn and dusk. The desert light is very harsh during the day—not very interesting. I didn’t want to get up that early and by five or six in the evening, I wanted to be back at my motel. So, what looks good at two in the afternoon? Nothing except a building.”
Although his Realty collections span almost a hundred images now, Freeman remembers every building he has photographed. A church in Colorado, an abandoned car wash in California—in them, he perceives a sense of naivety which he considers to be uniquely American. “One of the interpretations is that what I’m photographing is the death of the American dream,” he explains. “The version of it which I grew up with anyways—this sense of ‘everything’s going to work, it’s all fine’—it’s very toned down now.”
"I’ve found that what I like to do is to work—all day long, every day. I enjoy it so much that it’s the only thing I can think of."
Surfers, buildings, and more recently, these surreal underwater nudes that look to be straight out of the renaissance—if there are dots to be connected between Freeman’s collections, they don’t show too easily. That is unless you ask the man himself. He’ll tell you that it’s all the same picture. “To me, the common denominator is the aesthetic. Although the subject matter and the treatment differs, the aesthetic is the same,” Freeman says. “There are a lot of photographers—whom I very much admire—such that when you look at their work, there’s an unsettled feeling to it. It’s a question of what’s the next picture. It seems to me that that doesn’t apply to my work. Each picture looks final”
This is the idea which he carried over from his days of writing arrangements. “When I was a musician, it all sounded like the same music,” he reiterates. “And actually, my photography looks a lot like my music sounds. I keep on doing the same thing over and over again in different media.”
Over 75 years, Ed Freeman has made several lifetimes worth of art. He has brought to life more ideas than many care to conceive and still, there linger more in his mind than he’ll ever be able to make use of. Although, that’s not to say that he won’t try—I find out as Freeman quiets down to a whisper and lets me in on his greatest fear: the electricity going out.
“To not be able to work—I guess that’s what it means,” he clarifies after some moments spent in thought. “When I was in my 20s, I was a very spiritual person. I was buttonholing everybody on the street and trying to turn them onto my brand of spirituality. Yak yak yak. Then, one day, I heard a voice and the voice said ‘why don’t you shut up and go to work?’. Not every day you hear a voice, you don’t. I don’t know if it was imaginary or real, but I thought I’d best pay attention. So, that’s what I did, and that’s what I’ve done my whole life since. And I’m happy about it because I’ve found that what I like to do is to work—all day long, every day. I enjoy it so much that it’s the only thing I can think of. It’s what I feel I was sent here to do.”
This feature was originally published in the Summer 2021 edition of Esquire Singapore. Purchase your copy today.