Michael Freeman is one of the world’s most respected photographers. A pioneer of visual-effects, he is an advocate of digital photography – and reckons that great photography comes down to one thing...Right time, right place.

Mention the name ‘Michael Freeman’ to professional photographers, and you’ll hear tales of respect and awe at both his creative and technical achievements. Renowned for photography of inaccessible locations around the world, he is a leading light in photography and the use of digital techniques for creative output – although he nearly didn’t follow a route into photography at all.

Michael kicked off his career in advertising, and got a job break via a three-month sabbatical, which he used to travel up the Amazon with two second-hand Hasselbalds. He submitted his transparencies from the trip to Time-Life magazine – and it used them for its cover and article spreads on a feature about the Amazon it was running.

“I realized that was probably the best encouragement I was going to get,” he says. “I resigned from the ad agency the next morning.”

Photographing exotic locations proved an exciting lure – and Michael cites a few milestones that have influenced his work over the years.

“The first milestone was when Time-Life assigned me to do a book on one of the hill tribes on the border between Thailand and Burma. It was a three-month assignment – which would never happen now – and it began my lifelong enthusiasm for Asia,” he says.

“The second was my work for the Smithsonian magazine in the US, which has a circulation of three million. I’ve done around 50 stories for them, from Iceland to New Guinea,” he adds.

That, he says, was the kind of photojournalism that has simply fallen out of favour today: “I fear that kind of magazine journalism – well-funded, plenty of time to get the pictures, no restrictions really, has just about disappeared from the world of editorial photography,” he laments.

“I remember asking about the budget for a particular story, and got the reply ‘There is no budget – just do what you have to do’.

All art, even photography, needs patrons, and this was one of the best,” he adds.
Michael says he doesn’t do travel photography, he simply travels to reach locations, and cites Time-Life’s Lou Klein’s saying that the art of photography is being in the right place, at the right time. “Content is everything,” he says.

Yet, the advent of new technology, stock libraries, and the dumbing-down of the industry means it’s much harder for newcomers to get started in photography, he feels.

“There may be more magazines than before, but they’re either completely dumb, like Hello!, or just specialized – not to mention the rise of stock photography, which eats into potential assignments,” he argues. “It’s clearly comfortable for people like me to have an income from stock after years of shooting, but it leaves new photographers in a poor position – and this will ultimately be to the detriment of photography.

“The only advice I feel qualified to give is to try something new, whether in subject matter or approach,” he adds. “Never go over well-trodden ground.”

One such area that is now well-trodden is visual effects photography, according to Michael, and the early days of effects photography were an exciting time, he recalls.
“I loved the challenge of using photography to illustrate concepts and themes,” he says. “The Smithsonian encouraged me to tackle some otherwise un-photographable topics, such as the birth and death of the universe, psycho-neuroimmunology, and particle physics. The challenge was inventing techniques from scratch to solve many problems – we once built an AIDS virus using 10,000 ball bearings as a base.”

Weaving light and magic

Yet, says Michael, the advent of digital effects has changed everything – and he hails the pioneers of digital effects, such as Hollywood. He once spent what he calls “a blissful” two weeks doing a photographic story on Industrial Light & Magic.

“The trouble is, the shock and surprise that are integral to the success of visual effects sow the seeds of their own destruction,” he says. “The audience gets jaded, wants more spectacle, and it eventually all becomes a little boring. I occasionally do effects now, but I spend more time than ever on my first interest, reportage.”

Michael is a vocal advocate of digital photography – although he admits that he doesn’t see a debate over film versus digital.

“Both are media that function perfectly well, and what counts is the image,” he says. “The invention of digital photography doesn’t diminish any of the work that preceded it, nor is film intrinsically more substantial and worthy.”

Michael made the transition to digital when the resolution reached the minimum for the yardstick for magazine and book publishing – the full page – and he’s currently writing a book, provisionally called The Digital SLR Handbook, due for release next year.

“The advantages of digital are overwhelming,” he says. “Being able to switch sensitivity from one frame to the next, knowing that I can pull some sort of image out of difficult lighting conditions, means that the range of subjects and occasions is widened enormously. Many shots for my current main project – a 300-page book on Sudan – would have been either impossible, such as the moonrise with Jupiter over the pyramids at Meroë, or so problematic that I might not have tackled them, such as cane-cutters working by flashlight in the pre-dawn, and 200 members of a Sufi sect jumping in unison at twilight.”

There are disadvantages with digital, Michael acknowledges – and the headline one is the potential for endless post work to be carried out on the images.

“It’s important to draw the line somewhere sensible, and of course many clients think they ought to be saving on film expenses, not liking at all the idea that they should pay for optimizing, or burning CDs,” he says. “With a transparency, you either accepted or rejected it. With Photoshop, you can dive into that image and do anything. I confess to quite enjoying image editing, but in a way it’s a displacement activity, and I’m better employed shooting.”

Michael has extensive plans for the future – and is an avid writer of photography books, which he says is “a little like moonlighting, though in a very serious form”.

“The explosion in digital photography is wonderful, in that it has kindled new interest in the medium,” he says. “Photography usually suffers from an excessive love of equipment – a sort of train-spotting, really – and I feel the need to stress the fundamentals.”

In addition to his work with book publishers Ilex Press, he is developing a new set of courses for the Open College of Arts, which was set up several years ago by Lord Young as the arts side of the Open University.

“Now that is exciting,” says Michael, “all with distance learning, so it’s available to anyone, anywhere.”