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  Emma Belle Freeman, Photographer

Emma Belle Richart (Freeman) was born in Nebraska in 1880. She lived on a farm with her homesteader 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. The couple relocated to San Francisco where they opened a stationery and art supplies store at the corner of Octavia Boulevard and Union Street. In her spare time, Mrs. Freeman studied painting with renowned Northern California artist Giuseppe Cadenasso. Like many San Francisco shopkeepers, the Freemans lost their business in the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906. They decided to move 275 miles north, to Eureka, where they settled and opened the Freeman Art Company.

Always artistically inclined, Mrs. Freeman embraced the study of photography, and by 1910, she and her husband were dabbling in commercial portraiture. Mrs. Freeman eagerly captured the daily life of her Eureka neighbors and the occasional passersby. In July 1911, Jack London and his wife Charmian passed through Eureka on a horse-drawn wagon trip to Oregon. They happily posed for Mrs. Freeman, and their experiences were later immortalized in Mr. London's short story, "Navigating Four Horses North of the Bay." Around 1913, Mrs. Freeman became interested in Native American culture after meeting Lucy Thompson, an elite member of the Yurok tribe who was married to white man Milton "Jim" Thompson. Inspired by Mrs. Thompson's stories, she created her 'Northern California Series' of Native American portraits that were described by one critic as "highly romantic and stylized." Mrs. Freeman's intent was not to make a photographic record of Indian life, but rather to present her conceptualized "noble" vision of the idealized Native American. She would often hand-color her images to enhance their aesthetic appeal.

In June of 1913, Mrs. Freeman became embroiled in a marital scandal when she developed a romantic relationship with a visiting government official. She and her husband divorced two years' later. The resulting social ostracism further strengthened Mrs. Freeman's connection to Native Americans, who had been relegated to the American social periphery for centuries. Her Indian portraits were exhibited at the Panama Pacific Exposition, and were chronicled in various industry journals like Camera Craft and popular magazines like the Illustrated Review. Later, one of her portraits was presented to President Warren G. Harding. During the First World War, Mrs. Freeman received national notoriety when she photographed a naval disaster, and was thereafter dubbed "the official government photographer." By now, two schools of thought were polarizing American photography. There were the pictorialists who created stylistic art portraits and the postwar modernists who preferred stark realism that did not manipulate substance to achieve style. Perhaps realizing her artistic genre was going out of style, Mrs. Freeman retired in 1925. Three years' later, on March 26, 1928 Emma Belle Freeman died in San Francisco. Several of her Yurok and Hupa Indian photographs (1914-1918) may be seen at Chicago's Newberry Library. 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'."

1998 100 Years of California Photography by Women
1850-1950 (URL:

1999 Emma B. Freeman Gallery (URL:

1991 To the American Indian: Reminiscences of a Yurok Woman (Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books), p. vii.

2003 Women Artists of the American West (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.), pp. 215, 311.

1977 Women in Photography Archive (URL:

2005 Women in Photography Archive: Emma B. Freeman (URL:

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