Through his art, Queen Anne photographer Davis Freeman has captured some of the world’s most famous faces; recently, he’s also caught some of the most interesting, if lesser-known, faces in our own backyard.
His exhibition, “Looking Forward: The New Heroes,” finishes up at the International Fountain Pavilion Oct. 21 as part of the Seattle Center’s “Next Fifty,” the six-month-long celebration of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.
The Seattle Center Foundation commissioned the Davis exhibition.
Davis’s vivid portrait gallery of 15 young, mostly local, entrepreneurs doing good for society, offers up newly minted icons of altruism for our times. Queen Anne’s Lauren Burman of Material Good, creator of Little Shirley vases, is one, as are Brad Gillis and Ben Friedman of Homegrown, a sustainable sandwich shop on Queen Anne.
Freeman wasn’t just the shooter: He interviewed potential subjects and rejected more than a few. Of the chosen ones, “They struck me as incredibly bright, energetic and extremely likable,” Davis said, “and there was little ego. And I’ve dealt with some of the biggest egos on the planet.”
For Freeman, 62, the exhibition is in line with his life’s work of photographing faces and places, including the Dalai Lama, Bill Gates, writers John Updike and Tom Wolfe, newscaster Tom Brokaw, musicians David Crosby and Graham Nash and photographer Annie Liebovitz.
A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Davis’s southern roots are reflected in his easy manner — a quality, no doubt, that has helped put his subjects at ease. Yet there is no mistaking the intensity of his focus when it comes to his art and the tough business of making a living from his art.
Davis became enamored with photography as a youth when he saw a friend’s older brother develop pictures in a darkroom. He went on to fill the role of high school yearbook photographer: “You got out of class, you got access to things, and you didn’t have to play football to be around cheerleaders,” Davis remembered.
A more serious look into the human condition awaited him. During the Viet Nam War years Davis spent time as a psychiatric social worker; his Seattle work included shooting for local hospitals, which took him into autopsies, surgeries and other medical scenarios.
After striking out on his own, recognition and respect for his art followed.
When the Dalai Lama visited Seattle four years ago, Freeman photographed the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people with a 20-year-old, rented Polaroid, which stood six feet high on a tripod; his usual working camera is a 35mm Nikon digital camera.
During the session the Dalai Lama was distracted, Freeman said, but produced, in the end, a beatific expression for the camera. Freeman’s portrait of rocker David Crosby is wistful and provocative. It has a flash-like, daguerreotype quality — a process Freeman developed which he calls “illustra-type” — that somehow intensifies our awareness of human mortality.
The man with a long trail of awards, including first place in the Px3 Prix de la Photographie Paris competition in 2008, not only admires photographers Robert Frank, Richard Avadon and Arnold Newman, but artists like John Singer Sargent and Chuck Close — artists whose portraits “create a vision,” Freeman said, which he calls the test of a great photographer.
Freeman noted sometimes people prefer a different portrait than the one he thinks best, reflecting the difference between photography as a safe mirror and photography as vision, or art. Camus’ dictum — that after a certain age everyone is responsible for their face — doubtlessly disturbs some.
To earn a living by one’s art is another matter.
“To be successful you have to have determination and follow through on the business side,” Freeman said. “We say 60 to 80 percent is business and 20 to 40 percent is taking pictures.”