Below is Sophia Renee’s interview with Paul, published in the The Lush Life in July, 2012.
“OUTBACK: THE LIBERATION OF PAUL FREEMAN
He is one of the most admired photographers of his generation, an important and astute recorder of the contemporary male nude image with a style that is undeniably his own. With over half a dozen critically acclaimed and beautifully appointed monographs to his credit, Paul Freeman’s stunning, erudite images of virile, rugged men working and playing in the Australian outback have come to occupy an iconic, cult-like reverence in the collective consciousness of the men and women – gay and straight – who follow his work and collect his books. Spearheading the second interview in her Icon Series for The Lush Life, photographer Sophia Renee ( a great admirer of Freeman’s work who cites him as one of her top five artistic influences and somehow had access to him ) gets to the heart of the extraordinarily gifted and influential Aussie artist in a conversation that is both candid and moving, allowing us a rare peek at the fascinating man behind the enticing images that continue to capture and liberate the imaginations of fans around the world.
Sophia Renee: Paul, I would like to say it really is a treat and an honor to speak with you. We knew each other a bit before this interview and you were aware of my deep appreciation for your work. I have always admired the beautiful, uncontrolled way you capture the male form. I want to talk about the first Paul Freeman images I discovered which were from the book “OUTBACK.” I was completely blown away. Your approach to sensual male photography was really unlike anything I had seen. Until OUTBACK, I was very much locked into a regimented appreciation of that early sculptural style of artists like Herb Ritts and Greg Gorman. But you really changed how I viewed this type of work. You showed me a completely different perspective which opened up my own point of view, helping me to see how beautifully a man could be interpreted in a more rugged and natural fashion. So, thank you. It truly changed how I approach my own work with men.
Thank you Sophia. You made my day! I’m always blown away to hear that my work has had an impact on other artists! It means I’m having a successful visual conversation about male beauty and sensuality. And connecting with other people by eliciting an emotional response. I remember I had a very similar response when I first saw Bruce Weber’s ‘Bear Pond’ around 1990. I was blown away not just by his direction, his use of light, composition, etc… but by what he aroused in me. He was such an inspiration. I thought if I could ever come that close to representing males and masculinity with such honest abandon, I too could be an artist.
SR: Can you tell me a little about “OUTBACK” and the creative process behind that work specifically?
With Outback I was definitely trying to further a reportage element that I had been developing since my second book ‘Bondi Urban.’ My goal was to focus on a theme that connected all the shots in a collection. I’d done this to an extent with ‘Bondi Urban’ which focused on the men of a surf side suburb, and with my book ‘Bondi Work’ which focused on blue collar workmen. But I think ‘Outback’ triggered a big response because we romanticize these types of men. The men of the countryside, the west, the wild, the outback… There is an established escapism associated with their reality. A timelessness. A freshness and wholesomeness. I accentuated this by the use of earth tones and sepias, aging photos, by choosing rustic and worn environments and settings, and through the actions and camaraderie of the moments and rural activities I captured. I think the lifestyle depicted in this filmic way was evocative and authentic. It connected the body of images into a total world, a mythical utopia where men are natural and at ease and unaffected, unselfconsciously, innocently beautiful while actively and happily engaged in and enjoying their life.
SR: A couple of months ago, I had a chat with Tom Bianchi and we discussed the blatant double standard that exists in regards to erotic male and female photography and how it’s viewed. I am curious to get your point of view on the same issue. Does it bother you that male figurative portraiture seems to sometimes be bound by the term “homoerotic” no matter the context? Personally, I find the term dismissive, too easy. It’s like society and sometimes even the art world is saying, “Oh this is great work, but it can only exist HERE, in this specific place, in this general framework. It’s only important in this genre….”
This is such a complex question and as such, demands a complex response. It goes to the heart of so many issues I have about the male nude, why I shoot it to begin with and why I shoot the way I do. There is definitely a double standard and the reasons for that also explain why male nudity is so often labeled homoerotic. We live in a society ruled largely by straight men who proudly and publicly lust after women, who they control. Men have always controlled women, including their sexuality. The ancient Greeks forbad married women from watching the Olympics because they were afraid the women would be so aroused by the beautiful athletic men that they would be unfaithful to their husbands. Nothing has changed for women except, if the Olympics were still held in the nude, even unmarried women would be denied the spectacle they enjoyed in ancient Greece. And nowadays, hetero males would not be comfortable admiring the naked male athletes. In our society, now more than ever, men do not want their potency challenged. Having their genitals exposed would open a can of worms about virility and power they are not willing or mature enough to deal with. Today, the conservative reaction to sensual male photography has been so successful that not only do most straight men and women see any depiction of the full male nude as gay eroticism but now many gay men do too. They are embarrassed by it, relegating it to a private, naughty place in their lives. It’s a shame but the majority of men who pose fully nude are almost always perceived as gay by both men and women alike but for different reasons.
Women are socialized to be embarrassed by the male genitalia when they see it in art, to awkwardly giggle at it, or even to think it ugly or not meant for them. I get that reaction to my work from women all the time. “What a waste” they say because they assume without knowing why, a beautiful male posing naked must surely be gay, off limits.
In my experience, many straight men are also programmed to be repulsed by portrayals of frontal male nudity, and to discourage their friends who might want to pose. If they look at a book of my work, they flick past full frontal shots lest they be perceived as gawking at ‘it’, or admiring ‘it’. They will happily cavort drunkenly with their mates and expose their genitalia to each other in fun when it is part of carousing yet don’t feel comfortable viewing it publicly in photographic art. I think the reason men have so many issues around their genitalia and being confronted by photographic depictions of their own or other men’s, is that they are being forced to confront their own weaknesses and inadequacies in the most primal way. The way in which women and gay men are forced to do. We all know the issues and insecurities it causes for us. Because men don’t need to do this, they choose not to. Instead, they focus their attention on the other forms of their potency- the stuff they own, the muscles they have, the power they wield. Because they run things and because gays have popularized the male nude in photography and art in their subculture, the easiest thing for them to do is label it, vilify it and contain it.
Of course, I am generalizing. There are men and women these days who think freely outside of any imposed constraints. But most of my straight male models have hilarious stories about mates and girlfriends reactions to their participation in my work. Many are revealing of male fears of sexual attractions to other males, and female fears of being branded a whore, and very few relate examples of free thinking. I am constantly reminded that there is something sinful or bad about what I do. Most men will happily pose ‘implied nude’ these days, but can be almost affronted and disgusted by the idea of posing fully nude, as if it would be an offence to their honor to be exhibited in that way.
What I do is hardly revolutionary or homoerotic but the reactions and over reactions from many straight men and women to it , their recoiling from it, or their positive delight in it, embolden me. I never set out to portray the male as gay, but to capture male beauty in its diverse splendor, as art, for everyone to enjoy. For me its important to show that there is no way of determining the sexuality of a man from his physicality. I believe there is a huge curve of genetic variations that make up each man’s unique sexuality, and trying to equate this with his physical traits are completely absurd. In fact, I need for men to not look of a particular sexual persuasion in my work in order to prove the point I am trying to make. I want to have a conversation with lovers of men of all persuasions.
But despite all my reaching out and the universality, the inclusiveness I have tried to put into my capturing of the male form, many women still think that what I portray is not addressed to them. Generally, I would say the majority of women see the men I portray as beautiful, but not appropriate for them. My Facebook page has only about 7% female following. The problem, besides their training to be embarrassed or repulsed by the male nude, is that women do not want to be perceived negatively by endorsing it. They often don’t want to risk social ostracism either by men or by their female counterparts. It takes a truly strong and independently minded women to be carefree in enjoying the male nude as art, and to be open about it. I think sexual equality for women and gays is still intricately bound together. Liberation will be closer to being realized when there is wider public appreciation of the nude male as an art form and straight men are forced to grow up and get over their insecurities.
SR: A very distinct aesthetic permeates your work. The men are natural, rugged, sweaty, unshaven… You have been pretty vocal about the fact that you have no interest in photographing the typical male model in the usual fashion. You enjoy photographing a man that looks like a man.
As a gay male, I am increasingly alienated from the direction that a lot of gay male fashion and erotic male photography is taking, finding its general photo surreal plasticity obliterates so many of the real, nuanced, subtle features of a man that make him a thing of beauty. In the mid to late eighties when the gym culture really took off, gays took to improving their bodies with a vengeance. They copied the pro body builders by taking steroids and shaving down their bodies, in order to highlight definition and youthfulness. The new stereotype was faux macho beyond the village people types which had at least been based on real life stereotypes. Now, it was a tribal muscle gym fetishist thing. And it is a pervasive fashion which grows still in popularity and evolves and which I fear is now disconnected from any organic male sensuality or the reality we genetically recognize or respond to intuitively. We respond to it now because it’s the fashion. (As the director of The Australian Centre For Photography once kindly complimented me , it is clear from my work that the erotic lies in the individual not the stereotype.)
SR: Lets talk about the man behind the images for a moment. You grew up in Tasmania. What was your childhood like?
Happy. Secretive. Painful. Loving. Religious. I realized my sexuality far too young. I was repressing big emotions far too young and my nature was far too sensitive. I remember my mother always saying to me as a child ‘darling you worry too much’ or ‘you think too much’ about everything. And one thing. I was constantly anxious about discovery. At school. By my parents. At around seven I had a fierce crush on a boy and wanted to wrestle him all the time, not in a sexual way but I was conscious of my obsession. I was also aware that it was evil and bad because I was told I was born with sin and I’d better obey the rules. As a family we attended the catholic mass weekly and some of the older priests were fire and brimstone types, always going on about depravity. It was the late sixties and early seventies and they were railing against social change, premarital sex, promiscuity. There were many threats. I went to catholic schools and was taught largely by clergy whom looking back, were largely insane for one reason or another.
But it was my reality and I adapted as anyone does except I had this guilty secret which had to remain undiscovered at all costs. I was just watching an episode of the British courtroom drama Silks and a quote from one of the characters resonates with me “while I hated them and what they were doing.. a part of me felt guilty. It was as if they could see something in me that deserved to be punished. And the worse part was I ended up feeling like they might be right.” (That feeling remains with me and embarrassingly still harasses me in my life and work to my detriment)
As the years went on, I had a strong sense I’d be thrown out of my family if they knew about me, even though my parents were loving and affectionate people who loved me and certainly encouraged me. They were proud of my creativity. But I felt the love was conditional because they were placing all these freaks in charge of me and endorsing them. I think the effect of a religious upbringing is far more damaging when a child for one reason or another feels unworthy. I put that dilemma on hold throughout my youth until I found myself unable to suppress either sexual desire or the growing rage at the people closest to me.
But at the same time, Tasmania was incredibly beautiful and the lifestyle- even for our relatively working class family- was full of adventure and beauty. We lived in a house that bordered bushland, we holidayed with cousins and grandparents in a beach resort where we skied, fished and roamed in incredibly vast natural playgrounds. I hated most of my older brothers and we fought all the time but we laughed too and I was my mother’s favorite for years, until I started to tell her , in anger, how stupid her religious beliefs were.
All through school I was academic and sporting to the extent I needed to be to pass muster. I was physically tall and athletic and I represented my school in tennis, swimming, athletics and played team sports passably. I kept myself below the radar trying not to draw too much attention to myself, ( though for some reason this didn’t prevent me from excluding myself from our version of Glee club, the annual school musical for which I did receive the occasional ridicule from school toughs.)
At University, I was instantly one of the cool guys for the first time in my life. I was popular with girls and convincing enough in my drunken stupors that I hardly had to prove my worth to them, but still got the admiration of my male peers for my conquest. I was a brilliant liar. But I was also bursting with sexual frustration which is why I left the small state and escaped to Sydney upon graduation leaving behind my whole life.
SR: When did you begin taking pictures?
Seriously, about 15 years ago. When I moved to Sydney all I wanted was to be an actor. I trained and worked a bit, both as a model and an actor, but I didn’t have the courage to pursue it. However, I had picked up a few photographic pointers when I modeled on shoots, and began taking head shots and composite card photos for friends in the industry and found I was pretty good at it. I attended The Australian Centre For Photography, pursuing film processing and darkroom printing. My dream became to work for a new Sydney-based photography magazine called ‘Black And White.’ They shot beautiful celebrity nudes and art portraits and published them in a chic, collectible coffee table format. At this stage, I had already been wowed by contemporaries like Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon and particularly Bruce Weber‘s brave Abercrombie catalogues and books.
My first commission with ‘Black And White’ led to a regular association with that publishing company, and I did my first full frontal male nudes for a pretty brave women’s magazine that was published in Australia for a few years in the 1990s called Australian Women’s Forum. At the time, I thought I was at the vanguard of the mainstreaming of the full- frontal male nude image in Australian photography and life. But I was wrong and conservatism reared it’s reactionary head slowly and surely across many fronts, particularly as a long term result of the AIDS epidemic which allowed society to stigmatize overt sexuality once again.
SR: Is there one work or book that remains a personal favorite?
I guess OUTBACK, even though it doesn’t feature -at least by conventional gay standards- the hottest men. For me, it was a delight to shoot because it seemed so easy and authentic. Not easy physically because the locations were dirty and scary at times and the distances traveled exhausting. However, the locations provided the opportunity for so many real and delightful moments based in reality to be captured effortlessly. Because it was the first of this series, I guess I still have a soft spot for the validation I felt it gave me and the voice it helped me find photographically.
SR: We have to talk about the models for a moment. What I love most and appreciate about your work is that it’s definitely missing that “staged” quality. The men- and the way you capture them- have a kind of raw, rugged energy that makes me feel as though I really am looking at REAL men at work and play in the Australian Outback. Are any of these men actually beautiful sheepherders and outdoorsman you meet along the way? Or are they all playing a role for your camera?
I don’t want to break the illusion, especially if it’s a successful one. I’d like the viewer to buy into the reality every time he or she contemplates it, even though we know at the end of the day, even in the best films, the characters are actors. With the Outback series, it’s been a mix. Some of the subjects grew up in the outback, the country, on farms etc, and we shot in some locations where we used real farmers, ( gay and straight!)
But there were subjects that I cast in Sydney and drove to country areas to shoot as outback characters, on properties and at bush locations, in realistic situations. Of course, it was important to me as a story teller to blend the varying degrees of truthfulness seamlessly into one authentic reality. This involves a lot of direction and a great rapport with the models. It’s also important to make them appear as though they actually belong in whatever environment they were in. To me that’s a huge part of photography. I always say 50% of my energy goes into working with the model and 50% concentrating on all the technical aspects, lighting, exposure, composition etc. I often think of myself as capturing stills in a documentary about characters pursuing a particular lifestyle that only really exists in my imagination.
SR: What excites you as an artist?
Trying to interpret and convey in a two dimensional form something that is ethereal, intangible.
SR: Let’s talk about your editing process. How many images do you generally take when preparing for a book ? How do you ultimately judge what constitutes a winning shot, what do you look for?
I take thousands of photographs in order to get the 200 or so for a book. But the most time consuming part is the editing, the culling. One shoot, in these digital days, might be over 1000 frames, taken in a variety of locations and lighting conditions. If it’s a interior shoot, it will be a series of light set ups and set variations. I can only really use a handful of shots and the first edit is based on gut reaction. I edit in stages and usually over a time span of several weeks. I don’t dwell on them too much, just give a shot an instinctive nod if there is something I like about it. Even in the first edit I guess there are stand outs, but I try not to give them too much attention at that time and instead trust that they will leap out again during the second editing process. And that is something I’d rather do a week or so later so that my memory of the shoot has faded and I’m coming at the shots with a somewhat more objective stance. I find editing mentally exhausting because I am always questioning why I think a shot has merit. I think it is largely a matter of personal taste and intuition, as well as training and experience in studying the wealth of photography that has gone before. Getting a broad photo education assists in maturing one’s own eye, and I guess my tastes have changed and evolved, hopefully matured! But it still feels largely intuitive, both when shooting and when editing, feeling what is working or works as a finished photograph.
As to what I look for, some of it’s personal aesthetic and taste and some of it is technical. Sometimes a winning shot can be bad technically. The shot has to be pleasing to the eye in at least one of a number of ways, whether by it’s form, it’s composition, it’s delightful moment, the story it tells and/or the emotion it captures. I suppose there is some truth being told. The shot should be contextually truthful. Whatever the image is about has to ring true for whatever reality is being conveyed. I find so much that passes as worthy photography does not do this. There is an authenticity lacking that a artistic eye should spot easily. A lot of it is about style, and that is something you can’t easily teach. If you are going to put a subject in a dirty warehouse for example, make him belong there. He shouldn’t look out of place. If that warehouse is his reality then he is not going to be squeaky clean with neat hair and a shaved body. He is certainly not going to be wearing a pristine white pair of underpants just out of the packet.
By the time I get around to doing the actual layout of a book, I am bored by all the shots and often very critical of them having seen them so many times. At this point, it is a good idea to bounce off someone whose taste and discernment you trust, to get a second opinion. For several of my books I have used a photography lecturer female friend who would not mind if I describe her anonymously as completely uninterested in the male as a sex object. She comes at the shot from an artistic aesthetic not a lustful one. Like me, she has learned the there are certain commercial considerations in designing a book which needs to be sold in a critical quantity. In other words, she is willing for me to include certain photographs in a book which she might find personally unattractive but which she acknowledges has artistic and commercial merit.
Finally when a rough layout for a book is done, there is a lot of swapping of shots that occurs because some photos just don’t work in the context of a book. In the end, it’s a heartbreaking process because so many photos I love end up on the cutting room floor. Once a book is finished, I can’t bear to look at it. I almost always think it weak and/or dull. But when I revisit the work much later, I can usually rediscover what I initially found interesting about the images to begin with. I think most artists are immensely self doubting and self critical. One day I will love a shot and the next day, I’ll think it’s nothing special. It’s a roller coaster.
SR: You have had the unique opportunity to capture some very interesting personalities including actors and sports figures. Is there someone specific that stands out, making him or her a particularly memorable subject?
There is no one specific but there are many that stand out as memorable. Subjects that are stoic and determined to outlast me on a shoot, willing to show dedication to our collaboration, who are genuinely interested in the process, are all people I hold in affection, and thankfully, there have been many of them. I treasure memories of the shoots that were productive, inspiring, or a shared adventure of endurance.
SR: Your work is constantly evolving. Your most recent book, Heroics, is a bit of a departure from what we have seen from you in terms of theme. I think these have a more conceptual feel. For those who have not seen the images, I hope I would be correct in describing them as a retro-conceptual homage to gladiators and the Romans and a time period when the male form was truly revered and celebrated. Where did the idea come from?
When I was a kid I was constantly chided , ‘stop the heroics’ when I was showing off or being over the top. Heroics was not meant to be a “serious” homage. It was meant to be a bit ironic, with elements of costume drama and theatre. It’s a tongue in cheek reflection of how heterosexual men have always highly rated their own heroism and bravery and glamorized their greatness with these over the top erotic monuments. It was meant to reference a time ( back in ancient Rome and Greece) when the beautiful naked male was publicly celebrated in art. When I traveled through Europe some years back, I took hundreds of photos of some of the very erotic male statues that exist as a consequence of this Renaissance in art, and which occupy very public places in most of the major cities. It always amused and perplexed me that the masses of humanity who rush hurriedly by these works of art in their daily commute, would still baulk at the idea of the naked male as a thing of art in their ‘real lives.’ ‘Heroics’ is just another mild middle finger held up at all those absurd notions, even though it’s a pretty polite finger. I thought by spelling out some of the themes of statuary found in Rome and London, by using real men, I could highlight the absurdity of disgust at the nude male by heterosexual men when they gloried in it in their own shrines.
SR: What’s next for Paul Freeman? Where can we find you online?
I’m just redesigning my website at to incorporate, finally, a blog. I’m also on facebook.
My ninth book, OUTBACK BUSHMEN comes out next month. It is a return to my more naturalistic portrayal of men in a real environment. Next year is 10 years since I took the plunge into self-publishing and coincidentally, I will be publishing my 10th book early in the new year . Book number 10 will be the follow-up to HEROICS, which is already available. After that, I’d like to do a retrospective, to go back through my early shoots and do a collection of some of my favorite film and digital images.
A Note From The Moderator Regarding This Feature: The Icon Series is a collection of interviews conducted by photographer Sophia Renee exclusively for The Lush Life. After her first interview with Tom Bianchi, it became clear to us that she was a woman genuinely interested in having an open and frank discussion about the importance of male erotic photography and it’s sometimes tenuous place in the mainstream art world. We found that intriguing. The fact that she also had seemingly easy access to some of the most important photographer’s in the genre and that they were willing to have this conversation with her was an interesting surprise. She fought hard for minimal censorship on the Paul Freeman interview because she was so passionate about his work and words.
In an email to the moderators of The Lush Life, Ms. Renee wrote:“Paul is tremendously influential as an artist and despite his fame and acclaim, I believe his overall importance as a contemporary photographer has yet to be fully realized. There is a timeless beauty and energy and authenticy to his work I truly love and admire and relate to. For me personally, the power of his photographs have less to do with the physical beauty and/or sexuality of the men pictured and more with where they take me. It’s like traveling. Paul’s images conjure up a very specific feeling for me. They capture a moment, a way of life… in a very tangible way. I refuse to conform to the belief that a woman isn’t capable of objectively appreciating his work or that it should ONLY be viewed in the “homoerotic” context. It’s not only absurd, it’s disrespectful to the depth and artistry he brings to his work. Please, please do not cut this interview down to a few lines and censored images. I would appreciate a look at the final edit prior to going live. It’s vitally important to me that we PROPERLY deconstruct the work of a man whose photography has meant so much to me for so long.”
In the words of Mr. Freeman himself, “It takes a truly strong and independently minded women to be carefree in enjoying the male nude as art, and to be open about it.”
Sophia Renee is a fashion and conceptual portrait photographer known for her work with male models. In addition to her various appearances on The Lush Life, her images appear regularly on a number of popular sites and forums including The Concierge, Island and DNA Magazine Australia.