Interview With Stu Freeman

Art Pharmacy had a quick catch up with photographer Stu Freeman, to check in and to see what he’s been up to since his last Art Pharmacy interview! Armed with a pocket film camera, Stu wanders the streets of Sydney and beyond to capture what some would call “the decisive moment”, theorised by Cartier-Bresson in the early decades of the 20th century.

Freeman wields his camera with confidence and sincerity, never hiding from his subjects that they are the stars of his artworks. Freeman is not a full-time artist, having currently achieved a happy balance between his photography and his jobs as an art director and interior designer. These occupations all stem from the same talent: an eye for detail and an ability to create a polished finished product. Stu observes the documentary aesthetic conventions of the taken photograph (as opposed to made), lending a photo-journalistic quality to his pictures. Stu avoids photographs that appear as heavily edited staged scenes.“A lot of photographs are very confronting taken head-on, I don’t do that, I look for something different”, he explains, explaining his penchant for enigmatic snaps.

What materials do you prefer to use?
I tend to use a pocket film camera, which I find is less intimidating than a large telephoto lens, yet more assured than a smartphone!

I think you were about to go to Berlin last time you were interviewed by Art Pharmacy. What has been happening since then?
I’ve been doing a lot of travel photography! Yes, we went to Berlin. It was right after my sister’s wedding in the UK, so by the time we got to Germany, we were pretty tired. I did a decent amount of photographs while we were there; I’m still going through those pictures! I found Berlin really rough and ready, it was quite nice. There is a lot of street art and surprisingly lots of squats, shantytowns down near the river and around the back of the big nightclubs. Berlin didn’t inspire me as much as I thought it would, I think maybe you need to be there for a longer period of time [than I had]. You definitely need a lot of energy to keep up with the pace of things in Berlin. I suspect that the nightlife in Berlin might inspire me to take some really good photos, but it wasn’t something I had the time to do during that trip. Even in Sydney and in the UK, most of my photos are taken at night, when I’m out and socialising.

I’ve just come back from a five-week trip throughout India with my wife, Emma. Thankfully she took photos of the two of us, rather than the places we were visiting (which I was meticulously recording). We really complement each other! I only had 8 rolls of black and white film, which meant that my choice of subject had to be thought out, my editing process happened before I even pressed the shutter. I don’t edit my analogue film, but I do spend a lot of time searching for the right frame, the selection is done before the shot, not after. My photographs from India are a big project that I’m working on at the moment; I haven’t shared them with anybody yet. I’ve been slowly putting them on Instagram. Once they’ve been printed I upload them straight on my phone, one a day. I’ve printed out about 80 6x4 prints, some of in black and white, some incolour. I’ve put them up all over the walls of my flat to make sense of them, to create a kind of narrative, seeing how they work together.

I was wondering about that, do you sometimes work in series? Most of your works are individual snapshots, yet they can be grouped retrospectively into series… Is that something you do?
Yes, that is the thing. I have had that comment before, people say that they are lovely photographs but they stand on their own. But then, sometimes you do see exhibitions of peoples work and they are just an accumulation of single photographs that stand on their own? I’m not sure how to go about creating series, how do you do that? Where do you start? I actually went to a talk not long ago about how to set up an exhibition, from the very start, how to choose the work. So I did what they had suggested, printing out the photographs and setting them down on the floor to see how they would work next to each other. It was there that I discovered that I had many series within series: landscapes, people lying down… My black and white photos tend to be dark and mysterious whereas the coloured ones from India are very bright and saturated, it’s great how they contrast very strongly. For example I have a nice black and white photograph of a man sleeping in a train station in India, and another one in colour of a western tourist passed out on the beach in Goa, in budgie-smugglers. I like how you can get such a stark contrast in the one country.

How does your photography fit in with your other jobs, do they complement each other? Do you learn transferrable skills in each of them?
Yes, of course. For a while I was working in a big studio for a design company. It was great because they taught me a lot about lighting, and they had such a large studio space. My wife Emma has a blog about tea, called The Tea Lady. We’ve been photographing a lot of images for her in the studio... It’s been really good to work together like that. I had never used proper studio lighting before that project, my shots had generally been candid, using natural light. I tried to keep an eye on it, but it wasn’t central to my photographs, whichhas always been just about a moment. Photographing tea for an hour with special lighting was a very different experience, but I actually really liked it! Now, I’ve set up some equipment to be able to do those photographs at home. My editing skills have definitely improved! At work I will spend one hour shooting the photograph and then the next two months editing it so it would look perfect. I’ve never been taught how to take a photograph, I’ve just picked it up along the way and asked friends to show me.  I try to minimize my editing, avoiding popular filters because I don’t want my photos to seem dated ten years down the track. I’m only just starting to learn about good photographers and looking at their methods to inform my own.

What are your plans for the future?
I’d like to set up an exhibition of my photographs. I’ve been sorting out my photographs to fit into series to prepare for it. It will probably take some time to set up, I need to think about so many things such as framing, sizing, printing. I recently took photographs at a rally against the closing of aboriginal communities. I was standing at the front of the parade and I got some really good shots. It was great because the cause is something I really believe in as well, there were some very powerful moments. I’m interested in seeing whether that [documentary photo journalism] is something that I want to do with my photography or not…

You can see all of Stu's available works here

Words: Lucie Reeves-Smith