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Her Musical Gallery

Betty Freeman's photographs capture the spirit of the diverse artists associated with the Hollywood Bowl

July 05, 1998|Barbara Isenberg | Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The way Betty Freeman tells it, her photography work began purely by accident. On the set of a documentary about composer Harry Partch, which she produced in 1972, Freeman was the only person available to take stills. Somebody handed her a Nikon, set the focus and speed and told her to shoot.

"The photographs came out so well that I've been hooked ever since," says Freeman, who was already passionate about art collecting and music patronage. Twenty-six years later, she has amassed thousands of photographs that eloquently chronicle the composers, conductors and other musical artists of our time.

About 50 of Freeman's photographs have just gone on exhibit (through May 31) at the Edmund D. Edelman Hollywood Bowl Museum. Predominantly of people associated with the Bowl in one way or another, the photographs feature such familiar faces locally as Esa-Pekka Salonen and Simon Rattle, and capture a who's who of late 20th century music, photographed in their homes, in restaurants, at concerts and elsewhere in L.A. and around the world.

For instance, there's Freeman's portrait of director Peter Sellars, caught at his place in Venice, relaxing alongside a visiting cat. English conductor Jeffrey Tate was photographed when Freeman and Tate were visiting artist David Hockney's studio in the Hollywood Hills.

Pursuing new music as both listener and patron, Freeman frequently travels here and abroad, and her camera is always with her. Two pictures of conductor Kent Nagano made the cut, one from the Salzburg Festival in Austria, the other at the Ojai Festival. Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti sat for her at his home in Hamburg and Morton Subotnick at lunch in Santa Fe. French composer Pierre Boulez appears in pictures at Milan's Ansaldo factory prior to a concert and at his Paris home.

"Betty has an incredible knack for getting the persona of the artist--John Cage or Alfred Brendel or Pierre Boulez," says another of her subjects, Ernest Fleischmann, the just-retired managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Each is represented in the show. "I don't know who else has captured the essence of those three the way Betty has."

Bowl museum director Carol Merrill-Mirsky notes Freeman's intimacy with her subjects, and composer John Adams goes a step further. "Composers know about Betty and know she's a fan," Adams says. "She likes contemporary music and even very difficult, thorny, dissonant contemporary music, and that makes her unique. If someone says Mrs. Freeman would like to take your picture, it's an honor."

It's also relatively painless. Both Fleischmann and Adams refer to how unobtrusively Freeman goes about taking pictures, and that's intentional. After devoting more than 30 years to nurturing the creation and performance of contemporary music, the elegant 77-year-old photographer is well aware that creative time is precious. "I'm in and out of the door in 30 minutes. I promise everyone that before I take a picture."

Shooting in black and white, Freeman says she usually takes "just 10 frames of each subject--at the most, a roll of 36--and I never shoot for more than 15 minutes. They get tired--I know I do as a subject--and I discovered that either you feel people in 15 minutes or you don't.

"The other thing I discovered," she continues, her photos spread out around her in her Los Angeles home, "is that I never ask subjects to smile because if I do, they're putting on a face for the camera. Instead I ask them just to sit and either think of a composition they're writing or to think of something sad."

Among her most evocative photographs--and her personal favorite--is one of pianist Brendel during a 1988 lecture on Schubert's later sonatas at the Schoenberg Institute at USC. "When there's no forced expression, the personality disappears, and the essence comes out. When I can get that, it's a successful photograph."

As another example, Freeman points out a photograph of a smiling Sylvain Cambreling. The French conductor "almost never smiles like this--he's smiling for the camera," she says. She sets it aside, disappears and returns with a second photograph of a more somber Cambreling. "This," she says, "is Sylvain. It's the same 15 minutes, but I stopped the smile."

Freeman says she initially learned from her own mistakes, then studied photography seriously at weeklong workshops with such people as Ansel Adams and Cole Weston.

Over the years, her photos have appeared as album cover art, in CD booklets, concert programs, books, newspapers and magazines. And the Bowl exhibition is her 30th; her photos have been on display in such cities as New York, Tokyo, Berlin, Salzburg and Venice.

For Freeman, the artistry of the photographs is intricately affected by the artistry of their subjects.

"Great music does two things," Freeman says. "It elevates the heart and engages the intellect. My best photographs are of composers I care about most. If I have not been moved but merely impressed by the music, the photograph shows it."

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