fig. 27: "Out of the Past"
Hand-painted photograph
from Emma B. Freeman's Northern California Indian Series.

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With Nature's Children · Women's Work and Arts

With Nature's Children:
Emma B. Freeman (1880-1928) - Camera and Brush
by Peter E. Palmquist, 1977

Emma B. Freeman, like the half-Indian, half-white subjects in her romanticized photographs of Native Americans, was caught frequently between two worlds. Ultimately her art, and her strength, lay in the manner in which she combined the best elements of both.

She was a renegade woman who defied the constraints of the male-dominated world of the early 1900's. She was a photographer intent not on realism but on poetry. She craved artistic recognition but chose to live much of her life in a cultural backwater, a white taking pictures of Indians.

Derided as a Bohemian by small-town society, she made her studio a salon for outcasts. Though keen on social acceptance, she courted scandal and a subsequent adultery suit by having a highly publicized fling with an ex-governor of Illinois. Her intimate friends knew her as "Toots."

As a photographer, she wavered between the extremes of artistic pretension and hard-headed photojournalism. The Indian photographs of Emma B. Freeman do not document the Native American heritage in faithful detail. Instead they express her idealized notions of the Indian as the embodiment of the mysteries of nature. Yet, during World War One, her pluck and daring while photographing a naval disaster off the California coast won her fame as an authentic journalist and earned her the title of "Official Government Photographer."

Her series of Indian portraits remains her most noteworthy achievement. But these photographs grew from her probable misconceptions regarding the Indian's oneness with the universe and her own deep-seated need to identify with nature. Even nature sometimes proved inadequate for her - so she painted wilderness backdrops for her studio and, on at least one occasion, used a blond European model to pose as an Indian brave.

Emma's romantic, artistically-conceived portraits were destined to become very popular, especially among those interested in obtaining fashionable images of themselves. Although portraiture soon became her major emphasis, Emma also photographed many of the more exciting daily activities of Eureka and its environs. In July 1911, writer Jack London and his wife Charmian arrived in Eureka on their way to Oregon and were photographed by Emma. The Londons' mode of conveyance was a double-seated spring wagon drawn by four horses. Later immortalized by London's short story "Navigating Four Horses North of the Bay," their visit was typical of the special occasions that Emma felt were worthy of her interest.

Emma capitalized on her considerable distance from other art centers by developing a mode of personal expression that was both distinctive and practical. Her self-concept was that of an artist "on the edge of nature's own wilderness." It was a romantic notion that expressed a freedom to ascend to her goal of artistic recognition. It also represented an escape from the routine of daily life into a fantasy-bordered reality of her own making. At the same time Emma perceived an awakening national interest in the exotic aspects of nature which also interested her. With increasing sureness, Emma proceeded to identify the experiences and relationships that would strengthen her chances of achieving her creative goals.

Considered as a whole, her observations were largely romantic musings...a spiritual concept of nature as the common source of perfection. Mankind, especially the Native American, appeared in this idyllic paradise in roles of heroic splendor. By 1913, the popular idea of nature had begun to assume a new meaning to whole generations of young people who had never participated in the early settlers' struggle to push back the forests.

Emma also had to contend with the strictures of the photographic establishment. One school of purists insisted that the artistic process stopped with the snapping of the shutter. This view held that the only creative acts available to the photographer were subject selection, composition, and simple exposure considerations. Another school, the Photo-Secessionists, blurred this distinction. It maintained an anything-goes attitude as long as the photograph was artistically conceived. Their aim was to break with conventional pictorialism, to explore fresh photographic subject matter, and to concentrate on the subtleties of light. Manipulation of both the negative and photographic print was a common feature of this group.

Emma was conscious of these various and strongly held opinions, through professional periodicals and the like, but she was physically isolated from the debate. In any event she was dead-set against capturing mere two-dimensional reality, for this immutable realism was the antithesis of Emma's artistic concepts. She aspired to reach an art form that combined drawing, painting and photography, one in which the artist's own hand was everywhere evident.

Emma's goal, judging by her own standards, was never fully reached. Even as her camera seized the outward essence of nature upon which it was focused, it failed to penetrate and satisfy her own vision of the mystery of nature as an inner experience. The elements of beauty and grace were represented, but too often she found the distant horizons of truth and poetry missing in the final result.

Judging by today's standards, it could be said that Emma did not attain her goal of a new mixed-media art for other reasons. Photography so dominated her visual expression that it relegated her painting and drawing to subordinate roles. She could not fully overcome the forthrightness inherent in photographic expression. Even the locale in which she worked provided another problem, its fleeting quality. As C. T. Wilson, painter of the California redwoods, commented at the time:

But the camera, though slavishly faithful as to detail, fails utterly when it comes to reproducing the always varying shades of green, the sombre browns and the myriad lights and shades of the redwoods. (Humboldt Times, May 2, 1916)

Nevertheless, her efforts were remarkable. Emma brought a unique vision to subject matter, for her approach to composition was heroic, her subject treatment allegorical, and her style painterly. Her surviving photographs clearly illustrate her training in the fine arts. Her groundbreaking efforts were made almost entirely on her own; in fact, her contemporaries in the region were purely traditional photographers. She alone enjoyed the reputation of "artist with the camera."

Her life, marked by loyalty to an intense personal expression, had also been a voyage of self-discovery. Schooled as an artist, she became an accidental photographer. A farmgirl who pined for the art mecca of San Francisco, she did her most creative work in the unsophisticated backwoods. Her artistic output, like the history of the Northern California Indians, was largely ignored until recently. Both remain a basis for legend.

100 Years of California Photography by Women

Women Photographers and the American Indian

All text © Peter E. Palmquist
With Nature's Children: Emma B. Freeman (1880-1928), Camera And Brush.
Eureka, California: Interface California Corporation, 1977.