Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Emma Belle Freeman: Early Photographer of Native Ameicans

Emma Belle Richart Freeman
1880-1928
Self-Portrait
ca. 1913
Eureka, California
Living in northern California in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, Emma B. Freeman existed under a dual handicap - she was both a strong woman and an artist. Her success and recognition were even more significant when we consider the prevalence of male-domination over women in society during that time, and the general attitude that women belonged strictly in the home. Artists working in the remote area miles north of San Francisco, even artwork created by men, were largely ignored by the outside world. These factors may account for Emma's relative obscurity to this day.

Born in Nebraska,  Emma lived on a farm with her parents until she moved to Denver as a young adult, where she found work as a ribbon clerk. There, she met and married Edwin Freeman in 1902, and couple relocated to San Francisco where they opened a stationery and art supplies store in the heart of the city. During their time in San Francisco, Freeman studied painting with renowned Northern California artist Giuseppe Cadenasso. Unfortunately, like so many others, the store was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, and the Freemans chose to relocate to Eureka, a remote region 275 miles north of San Francisco.The couple opened the Freeman Art Company which specialized in art supplies and a variety of other items. By 1910, they were also involved in commercial photography.

Freeman was a free spirit with an independent voice and vibrant character. Between 1910 and 1920 she produced her Northern California series of Indian portraits. Freeman often intermixed native costume - such as Yurok dance regalia and Navajo blankets - to create romantically conceived ideals of the "Noble" Indian. She frequently hand-colored her photographs and added allegorical details to enhance her compositions. Though sometimes shunned for her Bohemian lifestyle, Freeman did much to improve public sympathy for the Native American in Northern California. In 1915, for example, her principal model, Bertha Thompson (Princess Ah-Tra-Ah-Saun), was selected to head the parade at the Panama Pacific International Exposition, which was held in San Francisco. Her romanticized photographs and the influence of Pictorialism, idealized the Native Americans and thrust them into heroic roles. Ultimately her art and her strength lay in the manner in which she combined the best elements of both. Without wealth and the status it provided, Freeman had to negotiate a way to make art and a living. She, along with other forward thinking women of her time, created a path where none existed for those of future generations.
Emma Belle Richart Freeman
Romance
ca. 1900-1910
Northern California Series
As a whole, Freeman's observations of Native Americans were romantic dreams...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 colonize the West. Her "Northern California Series" intended to picture Native Americans with dignity and to grant them a place of honor, albeit through an idyllic lens.
Emma Belle Richart Freeman
Romance
ca. 1900-1910
Northern California Series
Freeman pursued an art form that combined drawing, painting and photography, one in which the artist's own hand was evident throughout. Her popular Indian portraits were exhibited at the Panama Pacific Exposition, and were chronicled in various industry journals like Camera Craft and popular magazines such as the Illustrated Review. One of her photographs was presented to President Warren G. Harding and hung prominently in the White House.


In 1915, a romantic encounter between Emma and a visiting dignitary led to scandal and ultimately to the divorce of the Freemans. She continued work, however, and to shoot beyond portraiture. During World War I, Freeman photographed a United States submarine that had run aground on a beach near Eureka. The cruiser Milwaukee, dispatched to the scene to aid in the rescue was lost to the heavy surf as well. Freeman was there to capture every detail of the disaster and rushed her photos to San Francisco where they appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, which noted: "Every day since the Milwaukee went ashore, Mrs. Freeman has been  on the job with her camera. She has taken more than 200 photographs of the scene, most of them under trying conditions of fog and wind and weather."  Freeman waded through water and rats in the hold of the vessel as she boarded the water-logged cruiser in search of great photographs. In recognition for her documentary work, she was appointed the "official government photographer" for all matters relating to the disaster and salvage operations.


Emma Belle Richart Freeman
Stranding of USS Milwaukee
ca. January 13,  1917
Photograph-Department of the Navy -- Naval Historical Center
Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.

In 1919, Freeman relocated her arts and novelty supply company to san Francisco and she set up in a newly remodeled three-story building. Freeman did art and advertising work there, along with selling art and Indian goods until 1923, when competition and an unscrupulous business partner led her into bankruptcy. Freeman moved to a smaller store and continued to work until her retirement in 1925. On Christmas Eve, 1927, Freeman had a debilitating stroke and finally passed away three months later, at age 48, in March of 1928.

The late photographic historian, Peter E. Palmquist, wrote of Mrs. Freeman, "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'."   

Emma Belle Richart Freeman
Bartered Bride
ca. 1900-1910
Northern California Series

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Sources:
Emma Belle Freeeman, Photographer, http://www.historiccamera.com/cgi-bin/librarium2/pm.cgi?action=app_display&app=datasheet&app_id=2685&, retrieved April 22, 2014.
Women Artists of the American West, Women Photographers and the American Indian,
Peter E. Palmquist, retrieved April 22, 2014.
Women Artists of the American West, Susan Ressler, ed. McFarland & Company, Inc. North Carolina, 2003, p. 214-215.
Ask Art, Emma Belle Freeman, http://www.askart.com/AskART/index.aspx, retrieved April 23, 2014.