Tech Talk With Award-Winning Photographer, UF Professor John Freeman

By: Robin Andrews

Perfect technology doesn’t lead to perfect results.

And lack of technology certainly doesn’t hide an abundance of talent.

But this is all in the eye of the [iPhone] beholder.

When our staff picked “technology” as the theme for the Fall 2015 issue, I began thinking about the technology I’ve been researching most lately—cameras. I’m not going to lie, I’ve been scouting out deals on a new Canon 6D for nearly a year now, but the reason I’ve held out for so long (other than the heartbreaking yet humbling contrast between my glamorous photography dreams and college-student budget) is because of one lecture a former teacher of mine gave.

In a photojournalism course I took a few semesters ago, I remember watching a video from the 80’s about Bill Greene, currently at the Boston Globe, and he said something along the lines of, “There is no perfect lens.”

He had a camera guy following him around all day. He shared all of the contents of his camera bag—press badges, cameras, lenses, film and even a passport in extreme preparation. He explained to the cameraman how to snap pictures of his subject before approaching them and then to notify them that they’ve been photographed and to ask for their name (always get their dog’s name, too) and other personal information. He finished walking viewers through the many aspects of a day in the life of an award-winning photographer’s, but one thing really stuck out.

Going off of one of Greene’s points, Professor John Freeman reiterated that the level of technology someone has doesn’t dictate their level of success. He lugged in multiple cameras from multiple decades of his career, reflected on darkroom days and reinforced that the composition of a photograph should be stressed far more than the tools used to take it.

Jimi Hendrix performs in Berlin when Professor John Freeman was in high school. Freeman’s first published photograph, his shot of Hendrix was printed in the Berlin Observer—a weekly paper that served the Air Force, Army and state department personnel in Berlin—along with a review Freeman wrote about the show. (Credited to John Freeman, with permission)
Jimi Hendrix performs in Berlin when Professor John Freeman was in high school. Freeman’s first published photograph, his shot of Hendrix was printed in the Berlin Observer—a weekly paper that served the Air Force, Army and state department personnel in Berlin—along with a review Freeman wrote about the show. (Credited to John Freeman, with permission)

Because of the lessons I’ll never forget, I caught up with Freeman again, and we had a conversation about some past practices as well as technology today and its affect on photography.

Freeman earned his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri then taught at Wichita State University as he worked his way through his Master’s degree. He came to UF in 1991. For nearly 15 years, he’s been teaching photojournalism, stepping out of darkrooms and leaving film canisters in the dust as he mastered the emerging world of technology with his students. Today, he’s the holder of numerous awards and the owner of an office-desk-drawer full of clanking cameras from decades past.

He’s currently adjusting and prevailing by the way he’s to his favorite iPhone and reemerged into the publishing world with the powerful tech device in his hand.

For the full Q&A, visit my personal blog.

Here are some key points from our interview:

_________________________

RA: How would you define photography and its importance?

It’s about communication.

JF: Well, photography shows everyone what the world is like—the good, the bad and the ugly.

The thing I think photojournalists do is they sort of put it in an order, so you can absorb it better. Because of their composition and catching moments kind of takes out the craziness of the world by showing certain instances where composition and moment all come together to make a statement or give someone a feeling.

RA: What is the best piece of tech advice you’ve gotten?

Umbrellas up, a University of Florida tour parades through the rain and past a student at Weimer Hall. Professor John Freeman shot this photo with his iPhone. (Credited to John Freeman, with permission)
Umbrellas up, a University of Florida tour parades through the rain and past a student at Weimer Hall. Professor John Freeman shot this photo with his iPhone. (Credited to John Freeman, with permission)

The best advice doesn’t have to do with technology at all. It’s simple.

JF: Well, one piece of advice I always thought was great and simple and sort of funny all at the same time was by this guy who taught at Western Kentucky for a long time. Dave LaBelle was his name.

Dave LaBelle was responsible for Western Kentucky doing so well in the Hearst Contest for years, and he’s a very passionate guy. He’s like a photo teacher, but he was a preacher also.

And when he talked, you could see like the Bible in his hand…

This guy, by the end of his talks, you were like wiping tears. And he tied together photography with the human spirit and showing moments…

He talked at a convention one time, and he said there are only two things you have to remember to shoot good pictures: where to stand and when to push the button.

Now it’s not as simple as that sounds because before you get to where you’re standing, you’re thinking of composition. You’re thinking of the moment.

You’re thinking of what’s big in the picture, what matters.

And then when you push the button, you’ve already got your camera set.

But he kind of boils it down to those two things, and I think that’s kind of what’s going on now with the phones. You don’t have so much technique to worry about.

RA: Would you say composition will always be more important than technology used to shoot pictures?

“A couple walks back to the Crescent Beach parking lot often an evening stroll along the water,” as published in the St. Augustine Record. Professor John freeman shot this photo with his iPhone, as described in his interview. (Credited to John Freeman, with permission)
“A couple walks back to the Crescent Beach parking lot often an evening stroll along the water,” as published in the St. Augustine Record. Professor John freeman shot this photo with his iPhone, as described in his
interview. (Credited to John Freeman, with permission)

JF: Yeah, I used to give two grades when I did the dark room. I gave two grades to a picture. One was for the content, and one was for the technique [which he considers the same as technology]…

The picture was really good, a moment was really great, your composition’s great. But your picture’s underexposed, your print’s lousy. So you got like a 100 over 70 because I had to separate the two in my mind.

But I said, content’s always the one on top.

_________________________

[Writer’s note: You can also follow Professor John Freeman on Twitter (@FreemanUFPhoto) or on Instagram (@freemanufphoto) to see some of the shots he’s discussed increasingly publishing from his iPhone.]

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