Thursday, September 10, 2009


The October issue of Outside magazine has an article damning manipulated photography in general, with me as its principle target. You can see the online version of it here

The author, Rob Haggart, a former photo editor at Outside, makes the argument that manipulated photographs "devalue the work of photographers with the skills and patience to capture awing images in real time. Even worse, modern photo manipulation is seriously screwing up our concept of reality and our willingness to believe what we see in magazines like Outside." He quotes natural history photographer Kevin Schafer as saying that manipulation "waters down the power of real documentary photography."

As a deeply committed photo manipulator, you would expect me to take exception to these arguments – but I don't. I think they're entirely valid. Photo manipulation IS seriously screwing up our notion of what reality looks like. In fact, that's its intent. Any photographer who opens up Photoshop is doing so with the express purpose of lying, cheating and stealing. That's what the program does – that's what it exists for.

So – is that bad? Are we manipulators morally bankrupt? In the interests of honesty, respect for "real" photographers and everybody's healthy relationship with reality, should we pack up our computers and slink off shame-facedly into the night? Should we be the first artists in history forced give up the use of a technology for moral purposes? That's like asking car manufacturers to stop production because cars are screwing up our concept of distance and speed and watering down our relationship with horses. Might be so, but it ain't gonna happen.

Rob Haggart thinks that we – I assume by that by "we" he means everybody on the entire planet, simultaneously – we are "finally getting fed up with all the tampering." He says that digital creations are "bad for photography" – which is sort of like saying the Beatles were "bad" for rock 'n' roll. As if there's some inherent "goodness" to straight photography. As if you could not listen to and appreciate "Maybelline" and the "Sgt. Pepper" at the same sitting. Rob thinks "there's a growing hunger for truth." Nonsense. There's a growing hunger for even bigger lies that we can use as role models.

Because that's what idealized imagery serves as - something to aspire to. Fifty years ago, nobody looked like Superman in real life - now every gym is full of Superman lookalikes. Fifty years ago, extreme sports were the stuff of cartoons - now they're everyday, real life events. Rocket ships to the moon existed in films a long time before they existed in real life. Manipulated photography, like comic strips and and movies back then, creates fantasies that are a leading light in our evolution. We need more manipulated photography – not less – to open us up to new possibilities and inspire us for the permanent state of future shock we all must learn to survive in.

What there DOES need to be, however, is a clear distinction between what we photo manipulators do – work that is increasingly an art of the imagination – and the work of documentarians and photo journalists, who record life with a straight, sober and hopefully, not too creative an eye. I'm sure they don't want to be confused with me, and frankly, I don't want to be confused with them, either.

Here's the picture Outside Magazine published under the heading "This Photo Is Lying to You" –

And here's the original, unmanipulated version; not such a big lie after all – just took out a couple of extraneous bodies, made the waves a bit bigger, added a few rocks and some more waves in the background, darkened the sky a bit – a lot of my other surfing pictures are MUCH bigger lies!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The F Stop Mag Interview On my Surf Series

Here's an interview I did a while back with - an online blog. Besides just me, they have some really interesting photographers on their site - worth checking out.

The Showcase: Ed Freeman

by: Zack Seckler

“The Showcase” is a weekly publication featuring a photographer that has caught our eye here at The F STOP. I’ve asked Ed Freeman to answer a few questions about his surf photography, some of which is featured in the new 2009 PDN Photo Annual.

These aren’t conventional surfing images, please explain what you’ve done to create these images.

They’re shot conventionally with the same equipment all surfing photographers use; a digital SLR and a lens as long as your arm - literally. But then I do a lot of Photoshop work on them - compositing, dodging and burning, retouching. I’ve taken out waves and added new ones, enlarged waves, changed skies, erased extraneous bodies, even combined pieces of two bodies into one - I do whatever is necessary to create images that say what I want them to say. They aren’t “true to life” any more than a Vermeer landscape is “true to life.” What’s true about them is that they FEEL the way surfing FEELS - at least to me they do.

Ed Freeman image #1

I don’t think your technique has been replicated often in the surfing photography world. Where did you get the idea to break off from the reportage style and turn these images into more conceptual fine art?

I’m not a reporter and I never have been one. If photography is about conveying faithfully what was in front of the lens, then I’m not even a photographer; I’m more of an illustrator. I don’t know anything about surfing, and I can’t - and don’t - approach it from the point of view of somebody who does. Surfers and real surfing photographers can spend hours discussing the fine points of one surfer’s technique versus another’s, one wave versus another. I’m completely blind to those subtleties. Instead, I’m interested in composition, lighting, the texture of the spray - I’m looking at it from a purely visual perspective. That makes for a very different emphasis, a very different picture.

Ed Freeman image #2

What was your inspiration in creating this body of work?

I was in Hawaii shooting stock - your basic “palm-trees-swaying-in-the-breeze-at-sunset” stuff, and I happened to drive by a surfing beach one day - the first time I ever saw serious surfers confronting serious waves. And I was blown away by the real life drama of it - men, women, even ten year old kids - who risk their lives to have what surely must be a transformational relationship with the ocean. I couldn’t participate in what were doing - I can’t even swim - but I thought I could convey some of their peak experience in pictures, the adrenaline rush they must have every time they catch a good wave.

Ed Freeman image #3

How has the surfing community reacted to these images?

They’ve never been published, so I don’t really know. Many surfers are so caught up in the technical aspects of the sport that they look at all pictures analytically - how big is the wave, how good is this particular surfer’s form, what kind of board is he riding, and so on. But some have seen these pictures for what they’re intended to be - impressions, not recordings of specific events. The highest compliment I ever got from a surfer was, “yeah man, that’s what it’s like when I’m out there.”

Ed Freeman image #4

These images were all done for a book project. What was the experience like of getting this book made?

This is still a book in progress - I don’t have a publisher yet, although I do have an book agent who’s waiting patiently for me to finish putting it together so she can go find one. I’ve published a couple of other books and I can say with some certainty that publishing is more work and less money than you ever thought possible. But it’s also immensely rewarding. There’s still something magical about the printed page - seeing your images on it, and knowing that people you will never meet will see and get value from what you’ve done.

Ed Freeman image #5

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

CD Cover

When I get tired of stealing from myself, I steal from other people - preferably dead, famous ones. That way it's not called plagiarism, it's called an "homage." Copy Mickey Mouse or some unknown painter down the street and you get hit with a zillion dollar lawsuit. Copy Gainsborough or Matisse and everybody ooh's and aah's about how creative you are. Go figure.

These pictures were done for a CD album cover (the photographic versions, not the paintings, dummy!) Legend has it that the Blue Boy and Pinkie were always in love, because their pictures stood side by side for so many years – never mind that they were painted twenty-four years apart by different painters. To play with that idea, we had lightning strike both frames, allowing both Blue Boy and Pinkie to break out of the prisons that had held them apart; the final picture was the two of them holding each other, together at last.

Nice idea, until you start trying to combine a painting and a photograph.Getting Blue Boy and Pinkie costumes wasn't difficult in Hollywood; the tricky part was getting the photographs to look enough like paintings so we could blend the two together.

Also, bench presses weren't really popular in the eighteeenth century, so the original Blue Boy has the chest and shoulders of a scarecrow; we had to stretch it considerably to match the buff rock star who was taking over his persona.

Blue Boy is mostly the original body, stretched and distorted; his head and right arm have been replaced, and most of the background is invented. Oh yeah, what passed for blue in 1770 doesn't cut it in the 21st century; we pumped that up a bit as well. Tasteless and garish, you say? Gee, I certainly hope so...

Pinkie is the original painting from the waist down; from the waist up it's a model and rented costume, except for most of the bonnet and the tassels. The background is the original, only cloned and stretched; we got the frame out of a junk shop and broke it to pieces in Photoshop.

I think the lightning bolt was from New Mexico; if it wasn't, it should have been. Never saw more lightning in my life than in NM...

Monday, August 10, 2009


I took a picture of myself once, and I really got depressed seeing it; I looked old and wrinkly and tired (of course I AM old and wrinkly and tired, but that's beside the point...)

Anyway, it was pretty depressing. So I took the picture into Photoshop and retouched it, taking about twenty years off my face. And I felt much better about myself! Amazing, the power of the photographic lie to convince you that something is true when it's not - even when you know what the lie is, because you're the one who told it!

So does that mean we should never retouch anything? No. When was the last time you grabbed somebody, put him or her under a spotlight against a plain background with no distractions and stared intently at their motionless, unblinking, silent face from fifteen inches away for half a minute? That's not the way we see people in real life, but that's what we experience when we look at a photographic portrait. Almost anything and anybody would wither under such ruthless examination; we retouch to make up the difference between what you see in real life and what the camera sees.

Here's a perfect example: the first picture is what I supposedly look like (or did, five years ago) in the unforgiving glare of studio lights.
But with only the SLIGHTEST amount of VERY SUBTLE retouching, that picture is restored to the way I REALLY look in real life...

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Editing: before and after.

I'm a photographer. That means I use a camera to make pictures. It doesn't mean that I subscribe to some unwritten set of rules about what you can and cannot do to the pictures once you've taken them. Whatever those rules are, I don't pay any attention to them. I manipulate the hell out of all my pictures.

I'm not interested in telling the truth. Truth and honesty are two entirely different things. I am utterly committed to being honest, but not truthful. For me, being truthful visually is recounting what you saw. Being honest is recounting what you feel. There's a big difference. I have infinite respect for journalists and documentarians who at least try to tell the truth, but that's not me.

Photography is a unique art, in that it seems to have a set of values foisted on it from the outside that have nothing to do with its inherent nature. It's hard to imagine a piece of music where the musician was prompted to say, "this music was written without using electricity" or the preface to a novel that read, "written longhand without using a computer." But time and time again I see photographers who trumpet the fact that their pictures were created entirely in camera without the use of Photoshop. Why should we care? Is the point of photography just to see how good an image you can make with one hand tied behind your back?

Supposedly, darkroom manipulation is OKAY - probably because it's been done since Day One, and besides, Ansel Adams did it. But using Photoshop is NOT OKAY - probably because a lot of people don't know how to use it and feel threatened by it. Frankly the distinction is utterly lost on me.

If you want to limit photography to determining which horse won in a race, then I suppose it can be called truthful. But the minute you add any creativity to it, it is selective, subjective, interpretive and by definition no longer truthful. Does anybody really think Cartier-Bresson, or Stieglitz or Avedon were reporting on the way things looked? Oh, please.

Here are a couple of before/after pictures to give you an idea of just how untruthful I am (at least I'm being honest about it).

This is the way the Great Wall really looks - not all that impressive on a miserable gray day with a bunch of tourists climbing all over it. I replaced the sky, took out all the distracting details and added some shadows.

Maybe it didn't look like this, but it COULD have...

This is from a series of pictures I did entitled Desert Realty. That's a play on words - it's Realty, not Reality. The building is real - in Darwin, California, a one-horse town in the middle of nowhere -

but I cleaned up the location and changed the time of day to present it in a more optimal setting.

This one was shot for stock - I loved the signs but I thought it needed more order in the composition.

So I drove down to another car lot, shot the cars there and combined the two. Might as well clean up the background, take out the other signs and put in a happier sky while you're at it...

I'll probably have more to say about all this in the future. Once I get started on this subject, you can't shut me up.