Senses of Living® Décor

September 2006
© 2006 by Bret S. Beall


Photographs have been used as home décor since the medium was invented. The big question is whether you purchase photographs for home décor, or whether you take your own pictures.

For years I called myself "the world's worst photographer." I could draw, paint, design ... but I couldn't photograph worth a darn. It turns out there is some correlation between what I could and couldn't do: as an artist and designer, I was accustomed to manipulating the image or the view to look the way I wanted it to look; I naturally edited-out items I didn't like. With photography, one doesn't have that luxury ... the camera never lies (that's more or less true these days with modern technology). I would look through the viewer, and see what I "wanted" to see, not what was really there. You cannot believe the files upon files I have of panoramas with electric power lines running through them, or an unsightly billboard, or lots of litter lying about (for clarification, I didn't want any of those things in my shots).

Over the years, I have practiced quite a bit, becoming more mindful of what is really in the viewfinder, and today I can actually take some pretty impressive photographs. That said, I still marvel at the truly talented, the "great" photographers, those individuals with natural talent to which people like me could only aspire.

One of these "true talents" is Carol Freeman, someone who is using that talent to make the world a better place. You can enjoy many of her photographs at http://www.carolfreemanphotography.com and get a glimpse of this multidimensional person, but I want to bring some additional facets to the forefront. Here's an interview that Carol granted me in June 2006:

Bret: Carol, thanks for agreeing to this interview. Let's begin with the basics: How did you get started taking pictures?

Carol: My father had an interest in photography. I received an old box camera in my teens. Then when the instamatics came out, that made photography so easy that I was running around all over the place taking pictures. College was also very important for my development: I majored in graphic design, and minored in photography.

Bret: What made you focus on wildlife as your primary subject material (pardon the pun)?

Carol: In 1990 I started Freeman Design, my graphic design company. One of my first clients was Upstart Crow, a nature store around the corner from my office. I'd go to them to discuss their ads, and they'd be discussing wildlife. I was astonished at the diversity of species in the greater Chicago area. So I started going out and taking pictures. I'd come back with my images and get Eric Walters at the nature store to identify them. Shortly thereafter, I started incorporating photographic images of wildlife and nature into the ads I designed, and in my own brochures. I started using my pictures as backgrounds, and that grew into specific commissions where people would come in and request a particular type of image. I often went to the Chicago Botanic Garden, and eventually asked them if they ever needed any freelanced images. Sure enough, they used one of my swan images in their newsletter, and that was the beginning of my relationship with the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Later I served as photography editor for Chicago Wilderness Magazine for four years. Eventually, I realized that I liked photography more than graphic design, in part because I felt I was a far-better photographer than a graphic designer. I asked the Universe how I could best use my talents to better the world, and the response continually came back as "photography." So, I finally contacted a business broker in 2001 to find a buyer, and sold the graphic design business in 2003 to allow me to devote my life to photography fulltime.

Bret: One of your hallmarks is a belief in connectivity (that is yet another reason your work is so in sync with the GOD-DESS philosophy). Have you always had an environmental/ecological orientation?

Carol: I remember watching a film in high school showing tons of trash being pushed around. I was struck by that powerful image, and though I didn't know what I, as an individual, could do then, the image has stuck with me all of this time. In college, I did a lot of soul-searching, and read a lot of philosophy. When I got to Zen by way of Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," and Shunryu Suzuki's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," and Richard Bach's "Illusions," which has become a favorite, I knew I had found something significant. I had gone through a good portion of my life before I realized that there had to be "more than this," and I also realized how important it is to actually "do something." Maybe it came from hitting 40? I also realized that the government doesn't really care about what is good for people.

Bret: Tell me a bit about your project to document all of the endangered species in Illinois? Was this your original idea? Are there others who are doing similar things around the country/world?

Carol:I have been inspired by Ansel Adams who was hired in 1941 by the US government purportedly to create a mural for the Department of the Interior Building, but whom many believe was actually hired to document the US National Park System because of concerns about possible nuclear destruction of these natural wonders during World War II and the subsequent Cold War.

There are more than 500 threatened and endangered species in Illinois, but not all of them get the attention they deserve. Who's going to save sedge? We need to be more aware. This is why I eat organic. The Inuits in Alaska have some of the highest levels of toxins and heavy metals in their bodily tissues of any people, because of what we are doing here in the lower 48. Why do we seem to live in a world that is all about development? People don't see the connection between their flooded basement and creek redevelopment. We need more education as well as more awareness!

In that context, I am setting up my 501c3 non-profit organization, Team Green Environmental Network, or "Team Green" for short, to deal with the urgency of preserving endangered species. And that is the key to why I picked the endangered species of Illinois to document: it is the urgency! If we don't act now, it will be too late for some species. If people realize there is urgency, perhaps they will listen. Most people don't even realize that these species are here, let alone endangered. And they are so beautiful in their unique ways that I hope my photographing them can create a connection with others to raise awareness and consciousness.

Bret: I believe that your motto, tagline, slogan, maybe even mission statement, is "In Beauty. I Walk," which is part of a Navajo chant. Could you share some of your perspective and how you came to it?

Carol: Read the chant:
In Beauty, I walk
To the direction of the rising sun.
In Beauty, I walk
To the direction traveling with the sun
In Beauty, I walk
All around me my land is beauty.
In Beauty, I walk.

I don't travel the world looking for beautiful pictures. The beautiful pictures are already here. You just have to open your eyes. They are here. Try to connect with nature at least once a week. I would bet everyone reading this interview is within 30 minutes of a chance to connect with nature. My backyard space is only 13'x13'. When they were pouring the patio, I had them cut a crescent out of the concrete where I could grow plants and invite Nature into my presence. I have a long list of birds that come to visit the feeders. There are squirrels and chipmunks. There are butterflies and mantises and other unusual insects. Hawks live nearby. I find it easy to connect with nature every day.

You can create an oasis in your own yard, though it may be a little more "advanced" to have an actual vacation in your backyard. I still find new wilderness areas to visit around here. I'll read about preserves that are new to me in Chicago Wilderness Magazine, and it always surprises me to learn, "Oh, there's a wilderness area THERE?" Also, the same area will change throughout the year. Everything changes. I guess my message is to not wait for a vacation to connect with nature, but to try to connect on a regular basis: volunteer, take walks, take classes, just get out there.

In so many ways, we've forgotten how vital it is to experience nature. Nature affords you luxury of experiencing its beauty before work, after work, during a break, on weekends, any time.

Bret: Returning to your art, do you have any tips for my readers to help them improve and enhance their photographic skills? I know I particularly appreciated one in your June newsletter advising individuals who are photographing animals to focus on the eye of the creature; that's really helpful. I also know that your website, http://www.carolfreemanphotography.com has some useful tips. Any other helpful hints?

Carol: The best thing to do to improve your photography is to take pictures. And then take more pictures. Go out weekly. I teach classes at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I have found that most of the people who sign up don't really need me; what they need is to be given "permission" to spend three hours per week taking pictures instead of their usual routine. Photography has all of the qualities of medicine. Photography forces you to really "see" things, to look at things differently, and by doing this, you can open up and change.

Bret: I particularly like your photographs that are close-ups of plants and animals, making them appear almost abstract in their representation. For example, you have a close-up of a poinsettia bract that is almost unearthly in its beauty. Could you discuss how you balance artistry with documentation?

Carol: I teach a close-up photography class. One of the exercises that I give is for the students to think about "how little of something can you show to have its essence?" People are amazed by how little of an image is needed, how little is needed to find the focus of the subject matter. It also helps people to look more carefully. I encourage them to look at the stars, and then to look at a flower; there are universes in a flower! Everyone has these layers of universes in their own backyards. One doesn't need the Tetons or Bali to experience Nature! Nature is amazing and it's everywhere!

Bret: This column is about décor, and enhancing one's home with beauty while being socially- and environmentally-mindful. You have a variety of products that feature your beautiful photographs. Please tell me about your merchandizing activities, and how people can incorporate the products into their homes and lifestyles.

Carol: A couple of things come to mind. One has to do with the feng shui aspect of nature in the home. I think it is Deepak Chopra who speaks about a photograph having the "essence" of a thing. Even if you can't be outdoors, just having that image of the outdoors in your home creates the effect of nature's presence, that harmony. I do my calendar partly for that purpose. Everyone viewing the calendar stops at a different image. Literally, there is something for everyone in nature. Some viewers relate to a particular color; I know that when I hear, "Oooooh! Purple!" That is the emotion that is brought into the home! I can always tell the pictures that people really like; they gasp and I do that when I take the picture!

The products come in an affordable price point. For instance, I have matted prints ideal for hanging in your home; they are extremely high quality, but they are done on an offset press to keep costs as low as possible. The process is extremely earth-friendly, as the images are printed with natural dyes directly onto paper with highly recycled content using direct-to-plate procedure (a digital technology that allows the image to go directly onto the photography plate without the usual chemicals). Unfortunately, no high quality art paper is 100% recycled or chlorine-free, but I do the best that I can.

100% of the profits from the sale of my products goes to fund my endangered species projects. The calendar is my best seller [Bret's note: the calendars should sell well; they are consistent award winners!]. It is designed so that printing occurs only on one side so that the user can reuse the larger image in standard frames available elsewhere to enhance their homes, and the smaller side images are exactly the size of a standard plastic bookmark "sleeve"; these calendars can be used for years and years.

Bret: Perhaps most relevant to decor are the prints of your photographs that you sell. Could you speak a little about the prints that you sell, how you think photograph prints should be displayed, and finally, how can the readers order your prints?

Carol: I have small 8"x10" matted prints. I have 11"x14" matted prints. All of my prints fit standard frames that can be bought anywhere. That said, I do love getting images as big as possible. I have a dragonfly print hanging above my couch in my living room that is 4'x3' ... I just love it! Having a dragonfly image that size, with the many intricacies of its anatomy, and the flower on which it is perching, is just amazing. But, then, that's a $2000 print. I would urge anyone interested in displaying photography to purchase the largest print that they can afford, and then to display it where you can see it daily.

Seriously, though, there's really no "right" way. The right way is whatever works for you! I also have high quality art prints available in every size for every possible use. Any image that I have posted at Flickr [http://www.flickr.com/photos/inbeautyiwalk] or on my website [http://www.carolfreemanphotography.com/] can be printed from 5"x7" to 3'x4'; all people have to do is to email me at carol@carolfreemanphotography.com to discuss what services they want in conjunction with the print. They may want only the print, or they may want me to mat it, or frame it. Just get in touch; we'll come to an agreement about how much you want me to do. For many the hardest part is picking the image that they want, but others know exactly what they want, and that's fun. It's a great complement when someone says that one of my photographs speaks to him or her.

Bret: Carol, if you could leave the readers with any final thoughts about photography, conservation, walking in beauty, connectivity, or anything else, what would you like to say?

Carol: I'd like people to make a commitment to do one thing to make a difference. Eat organic. Buy and drive a hybrid car. Volunteer your time. Donate time and/or money to an environmental group. Please, stop saying, "It's someone else's problem." Your effort can be as simple as buying recycled towels. One person can make a difference!

Bret: Thank you, Carol, for your generous sharing, your beautiful photography, and your hard work to make the world a better place.

Photography can be an exceptionally effective décor element. Photographs can evoke memories and enhance moods. They can also worsen moods and bring forth bad memories, so be prudent in your selection of photographs for your home and environment. I can assure you that any and all of Carol's photos will enhance your environment, whether as a limited edition print, or as a recycled calendar image, or something in between that you found at http://www.carolfreemanphotography.com.

If you need help evaluating photos to use as décor in your home, I can provide that assistance. To book some time with me, just call 773.508.9208 or email me. You deserve a beautifully decorated, life-enhancing home.