CD: When we first met back in 2008, you were hard at work shooting your Space Lands project and laying out the book. Tell me about the project, how the book came together and the awards.
Paul Freeman: In 2007 I heard that two famous Britons, Richard Branson and the architect Norman Foster, were both involved in the development of a space tourism industry in New Mexico. Looking at a map of the proposed site of the new spaceport where Richard Branson would launch tourists into space I saw that it was close to the location where the Manhattan project detonated the first atomic bomb. This piqued my interest as I’m what is known as an ‘Orphan of Apollo’, of an age where I’d seen the moon landings as a child and had expected that by my adulthood we’d all be regularly travelling into space. This didn’t happen of course and its been a disappointment for my generation. It seemed to me that people like Branson and Rogers were trying to ‘put this right’ and it was inspiring.
Then one day in October I read a news item that there was going to be an X-Prize sponsored moon lander competition in Alamogordo the following weekend. Something snapped and with uncharacteristic spontaneity I booked a flight to New Mexico to leave the following morning. I didn’t have any expectations about what I’d find. It turned out that Southern New Mexico was a haven for a space history buff and the visual environment was exciting and unexpected. I spent a week clocking up thousands of miles in the hire car and shooting from dawn to dusk. The images I took formed the ‘spine’ of what became my early prototype book.
Since then I’ve made many more trips sometimes three a year and it’s now a fairly large body of work comprising a number of related mini-narratives. I have what I believe are the only aerial progress photographs of the spaceport runway, a body of landscape images and some portraits of the many colourful people I’ve met over the last seven years.
In 2009 I entered my prototype book in the ‘Brilliant Book Awards’ which was awarded by Ag Magazine, a superb art photography magazine in the UK. I won the award that year and at the time thought that full publication must surely be around the corner, instead I am still shooting and collecting images and what I thought was a limited project became more of an obsession.
As I write in 2013, the Spaceport in New Mexico has been built, Richard Branson’s spacecraft is still being tested and we await the first powered flight of the tourist rocket. I think when the spacecraft flies, my narrative will be complete, even if I don’t get anywhere near the event itself.
I’ve now begun to write an account of the last seven years which is about the experiences I’ve had as a photographer working independently trying to document something that is really very controlled. The area where the Spaceport is located is close to important historic sites connected to the history both of Spanish conquest and the history of the Apache and this bigger context isn’t part of the official story. The final narrative will combine the contents of the earlier book with this developing text and the additional images I’ve shot since 2009.
CD: You have created by far, the best portfolio app available for the iPad and you recently partnered with PhotoShelter. When did the idea first come to you and how did you go about creating the app – specifically from a photographer’s perspective?
Paul Freeman: In 2008 I found myself with some time on my hands, incredibly impressed by the cultural impact of the iPhone. When the iPad came out I was immensely excited. I immediately saw that Apple had at last found the way to deliver incredible technology that would fuse media with computing in a completely intuitive way.
As a photographer I wanted some way of using the iPad to show my work in a way that was very elegant and lacking in ‘clutter’ so that it was as near to looking at a coffee table book as possible. I saw an opportunity here and thought that maybe this would be the future of digital publishing. I could see that while the print publishing business model was being wrecked by the web, blogging and free usage of media, that a proprietary platform like Apple’s iPad might provide new revenue streams for creative people.
I also think that there may be ways for photographers to more directly profit from their work through the dissemination of photo apps. So far this hasn’t been realised but I still believe it can be even if the amount of free content out there is rather daunting.
Initially I needed a project so I could learn how to program on the iPad. I created a couple of quick prototypes and a few weeks later was having an ‘executive drinking session’ with two excellent photographers. One of the prototypes was an early version of Foliobook and both of the photographers said they wanted it as soon as I could make it. On the basis of the fact that I wanted it myself and this tiny ‘focus group’ I started work.
From the outset my vision was that the app would be the basis of some kind of electronic publishing system, so I wanted to make it work as much like a very simple way to create an interactive magazine/book as I could. The name Foliobook was chosen to emphasise that this app while being useful for putting together an offline branded presentation was the kernel of something which could become a person to person digital publishing system. At this time that full vision hasn’t been realised but I just launched a web publishing capability in the latest version of the app which is a start in that direction.
CD: In addition to your personal projects, you’re known as a architectural photographer. What led you to architecture and photographing space.
Paul Freeman: My first motivation was photography itself. I’ve been a photographer for a long time and it was always my avocation. Also I’ve always been interested in architecture from a cultural perspective. Architectural photography brought together many interesting things, particularly an aesthetic that is ‘synthetic’ and at least partly dependent on some very exotic view camera techniques. Because I loved architecture and photography and I could see clearly, as I thought, what the market was for images, it seemed an opportunity.
I bought myself a view camera and taught myself how to use it, at the same time I took a part time Masters degree in photography that focused on fine art and photography theory and this allowed me to spread my wings spending about 1/2 my time experimenting with different ways of imaging architectural spatial concepts and 1/2 my time shooting a fledgling commercial portfolio.
As part of my work for my Masters I adopted one of my inevitably risky creative strategies which is to do the opposite of what everyone else does. The modernist architectural photography that I loved seemed obsessed with presenting perfect perspectives that look like the plans that architects draw. One of the most famous exponent of this kind of ‘shifted single point perspective’ is Julius Schulman and I loved that work. So I thought if that kind of architectural photography is about presenting the architect’s aesthetic in photographic form it sort of represented the ‘consciousness’ of architects. Instead I’d reverse the role of the view camera and use it to create a dream space, if you like the architect’s dream or in some cases their nightmare. View cameras allow the camera to flex so that the focus of the camera can be related exactly to the shape of the building. Instead, what I did was invert the process, throwing the building out of focus in some areas and actually changing the shape of the building, warping it into something different, even making the walls bend or look as if they were falling over.
At the same time as I was doing this art work I was also shooting commercial architecture and building my portfolio, but unsurprisingly, I didn’t find that the experiments helped me win commissions.
Architectural photography taught me useful skills that I use now even when shooting landscape or advertising. I routinely rely on view camera movements even if there is no building in the image. In fact I find it hard to use a camera without a shift lens at all. It seems like something is missing if I can’t manipulate the perspective in an image.
CD: We spent a few days last year in the Scottish Hebrides with our mutual friend Julian Calverley. What draws you to the lonely landscape? Even though it was cold, wet and windy the big sky reminded me of the New Mexico landscapes from Space Lands.
Paul Freeman: My interest was mainly one of omission. I’ve lived in the UK for the major part of my life but have never strayed north of the Scottish border more than a few miles. I’ve been amazed by Julian’s photographs for several years now and wanted to see the actual locations. It was quite shocking to discover that the places and weather conditions really do look like his photographs. While it can be quite cold there, the Outer Hebrides can be quite paradoxically warm and it’s quite strange that their beaches look almost like holiday destinations in the Mediterranean even if you are sitting drinking hot tea from a thermos flask when you are looking at them.
In addition to that, it seemed silly to me that I’ve had to travel thousands of miles to find creative inspiration in the desert. I think I was hoping that maybe I could find inspiration in the islands. I did find that inspiration, but haven’t yet found a way that I like to interpret it. I haven’t found my own story. But I’ve been back on holiday and scouted some more since.
CD: Tell me about how you became involved with photography, first started shooting, early images and how your other interests have dove-tailed along with your career.
Paul Freeman: My father gave me the gift of photography. When I was eight years old he brought home a sun printing kit. We shot some portraits with an old Agfa camera on black and white roll film which he developed in the shower room. Then we made prints using the printing out paper in the sun. This was a very powerful experience of the alchemical nature of old school photography. You made representations by the action of light on chemicals, that’s just technology, but the capturing of a representation is something ineffable going on, that’s where the alchemy comes from, freezing reality, freezing a moment.
From that moment I wanted to make photographs, but it was quite a few years before I could acquire a proper camera. This changed at university, my dad bought me an Olympus Trip in my freshman year and then later I took out a loan and bought a Chinon CM4s which was a cheap copy of a Pentax K1000 SLR. In the days at university I spent a lot of time in the darkroom next to one of the music venues and spent a great deal of time photographing the bands and developing the HP5 and making black and white prints. I started exhibiting my pictures and got involved with other people with the same interests. I have some great monochrome images from those days, some of the gelatin silver prints I made really stand up, even those shot on the toy Olympus Trip.
When I was at university it never occurred to me that it might be possible to make a living out of photography probably because I knew nobody who had done it. I actually studied Cognitive Psychology, but because my college was a leading one in Artificial Intelligence we were able to use computers more advanced than those used in the actual computer department. I was very lucky with this because it gave me a twenty year start over the ‘proper’ computer people. I discovered I had a knack at designing software which while it is a slightly mysterious and invisible phenomenon is to me a very visual process. The things I learned are still being applied in the iPad and iPhone apps that I develop, all of which are concerned with photography in some way.
In parallel with my career with Hewlett-Packard and after I kept working with photography as an amateur, I started submitting work to stock libraries and eventually started shooting medium and large format as a hobby. All through this time before I started shooting professionally I’d been an avid collector of photographs and photography books. Eventually I studied for an M.A. in photography which was great as it provided me with the mental tools to look at photography critically. There is a lot of waffle and nonsense in the art world and you need to be careful to steer around some of it and focus on the very interesting insights to be found in writing about photography. I found it liberating because I became aware that things I’d tried to do all my life were part of a bigger picture, in particular, I discovered that photographs I’d made when I was younger fitted into a bigger space of photography as I learned more about the history of the medium. The Space Lands series is my personal reaction to the more experimental work I was doing in my M.A. For me photography has two fascinating aspects, firstly its place in documenting things in what we think is a truthful way, then its opposing principle of being able to create imaginative spaces, ones which have ambiguity and poetry.
Now I’m shooting less commercial work, but still working on personal projects and enjoying the freedom while I try to comprehend what is happening to photography with the immense explosion of quantity that has been fed by digitisation and the Internet. I still feel that Photographers who want to tell a story, whatever kind of narrative that is, still are under-represented by what digital media could do. Perhaps somewhere there is a sweet spot which respects the history of photography but which enables really interesting and thoughtful work to engage with a wider audience. I’ll keep looking for it.
CD: What advice would you give an aspiring photographer about to enter our industry?
Paul Freeman: Surprise people with your work.