Dean Freeman on his “chameleon” role in photographing stars from the Spice Girls to George Michael
The renowned celebrity and reportage photographer, son of Beatles photographer Robert Freeman, shares insights to his fascinating career as he releases prints for sale for the first time.
- Jenny Brewer
- 29 October 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
For Dean Freeman, rubbing shoulders with the A-list has been a lifetime experience. His father Robert Freeman shot the first five Beatles album covers, and far from living in his shadow, Dean has enjoyed a hugely successful 40-year career shooting everyone from the Spice Girls to George Michael, via Lily Allen, Bradley Cooper, Leona Lewis and Michael Bublé. He’s published ten books, two of which – Forever Spice and David Beckham: My World – sold over a million copies each. Now to celebrate that career and raise money in memory of his son Dylan, he is putting some prints on sale for the first time, with 20 per cent of all sales going through fundraising platform Work for Good to the National Autistic Society.
This nostalgic process has prompted Freeman to think about his beginnings in creativity. He grew up watching and learning from his father, yet those lessons weren’t what you might expect. “Probably there was some inspiration there, not from his work specifically,” he tells It’s Nice That, “but from the galleries he took me to, the type of films he showed me – arthouse, black and white, Satyajit Ray, Indian films. Or when he lived in New York, going to visit him… he knew Andy Warhol, so going to the Factory as a child. I wasn’t aware of it then, but these things seeped into my subconscious over time, developing my creativity by being exposed to it.”
Freeman says he was always interested in pursuing a creative career, and remembers taking pictures from the age of eight with his father’s camera, and at his school photography class at Holland Park Comprehensive in the 70s. “They would give us a camera and let us go and take six frames, that’s all the film they gave us. I developed a sense of wanting to capture my friends going to parties or being tired laying around on the tube late at night. It was capturing the youth culture of my moment… a phase between ska and new romantic and soul and disco.”
Fast forward a few years and Freeman quickly became renowned amid the A-list for his knack for capturing personality, candour and unique energy in his portraits. For his Beckham book, he looked to pay homage to a bygone era of celebrity pictures of James Dean and Steve McQueen, and photographers such as his father and William Claxton. It captured David Beckham at the peak of his “new dawn” at Manchester United, in a black-and-white reportage-style series. “It was just me and the camera, traveling round sometimes with him on his own, driving his car, being real without security, taking off the layers and capturing him,” says Freeman. For the Spice Girls book, he shot the group on tour and didn’t retouch anything – “they were raw, real, analog but still beautiful. The sweat, the tears, the awkward moments, the smiles, the laughter, the comradeship was all captured in that gritty rawness.”
When we ask who his favourite subjects were, he responds hesitantly, saying he doesn’t usually like to name his favourites, and has enjoyed every collaborator for different reasons. However, George Michael was “fascinating,” he says, “I so admired his talent.” Michael Bublé was a “just a joy, a wonderfully kind, and warm, and funny man,” and Lily Allen, who he knew from a young teenager, “is just a firework of wonderful energy and smartness and humour”.
While some of his subjects are accustomed to being in front of the camera, “most do not like it,” he says. “I don’t think many of us really like being photographed because, what you have to remember is, you look in the mirror, you see a reverse image, you see one angle, you see a soft light.
“Supremely globally famous people are mere mortals, in fact they come with a slightly more delicate side that comes, probably, with most artists and creatives,” Freeman continues, sharing insights from his experience. “I am very sensitive to the environment and [the subject’s] needs, and that does involve playing a chameleon role in some ways. Some want you to engage a lot more with banter and communication, some want distance, but I’m not always told that, so I have to have good intuition. That is the biggest part of photography with the stars.” He has the same approach to his reportage photography, for example his series focusing on Cariocas in Rio; it’s about connection with the subject, he says. “Forget the technique, the lighting, the camera. It is the moment, the eye contact, how you make them feel comfortable to expose themselves in that moment that is going to be iconic. That is the skill.
Be it Beckham, his friends in the 70s, or myriad characters in Rio, Freeman says every subject is on a level field in front of his lens. “They are giving something to me in that moment that I can capture and show their beauty in whatever form. There is some consistency [in my work] from day one to now, but that consistency is a beauty for trying to understand the human condition and sympathising with it.”
Dean Freeman’s limited edition prints are available to buy now via his website, with 20 per cent going to the National Autistic Society.
GalleryAll images copyright © Dean Freeman, 2020
Dean Freeman: Leona Lewis, California (© Dean Freeman, 2008)