Robert Freson on the porch of his Bailey Island home, next to the “message stones” he collects from the sea and tomato plants he received as a gift from Harpswell Aging at Home, a cause he supports. (KELLI PARK PHOTO)
Photographer Robert Freson has, over the course of his lifetime and the better part of the 20th century, shown that a picture is worth far more than a thousand words. With an eye for beauty, a camera in hand, and a certain je ne sais quoi, Freson has become a revolutionary storyteller of the human experience.
“In all of my work, all over the world, I’ve always applied a sense of discovery in humanity,” said Freson, 95. “There’s always a connection to humans. I wanted to connect people to everything I did, from the food from the ground to famous people.”
Freson’s story begins in Belgium in 1926 and spans the far reaches of the globe, from the temples of Sri Lanka to the shores of Jamaica to the hills of Ireland to the palaces of Saudi Arabia and everywhere in between. Freson joined the British Navy following the German occupation of Belgium during World War II, after which he made his way to Switzerland, where he earned a master’s degree in photography and met his future wife, Jeannette, an American artist.
In 1948, he was invited to New York City by Vogue to work as an assistant to Irving Penn, who is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential fashion photographers of the 20th century, having spent 60 years with Vogue.
“My life with Penn was incredibly unbelievable. We were working for Vogue magazine, photographing all the famous people of the time. I have many memories of French movie stars and artists,” said Freson, who traveled all over the world with Penn to photograph the fashion collections and celebrities of that time. At that point, Freson began to develop an interest in depicting the relationship between individuals and their natural surroundings by photographing models in their apartments, where they were comfortable.
“I went to work on my own as a photojournalist because I did not want to be a copy of Penn, who was a studio photographer,” said Freson, who embarked on his solo career in 1962. “He was a man who created a situation. I wanted to photograph situations as they existed.”
Freson’s interest in telling the story of the human experience led him near and far while working for Look, Esquire, National Geographic, Conde Nast Traveler and The Sunday Times, of London, among others. Freson photographed President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1964, followed by Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965 and Sophia Loren in 1966, when he and the Italian actress connected over their individual fertility struggles.
He photographed the Six-Day War in Israel in 1967 and eventually worked his way into the royal circles of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and England. Freson photographed Queen Elizabeth II several times, as well as the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. Those are just some of the highlights.
Amid the hustle and bustle of creating iconic images of some of the most influential figures of the 20th century, Freson also found himself depicting the essence of places untouched by time and the people connected to those places.
“The country that was most warm to me was Ireland, because I love that country and I love the people,” said Freson, who provided images for a story following in the footsteps of an English poet, Laurie Lee, on his first trip to Ireland, and who also documented the lives of Travellers, a traditionally nomadic ethnic group, in the 1960s.
“One of the most visually fascinating countries was India because of its shock of color and people,” said Freson. He followed a pilgrimage to Jain temples in India, while photographing the effects of a drought-induced famine during the same trip. He discovered the beauty of Buddhism on assignment in Sri Lanka. “The fascination of the photographer is to find things you’ve never seen … to discover!”
Freson soon became enchanted with depicting the lives of famous artists by exploring their connections to their surroundings and how those connections inspired their work.
“When it comes to photographing people in their environment, the people I’m most connected with are the artists. … I wanted to show how much the environment is part of their work,” said Freson, who created images of Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, Joan Miro, David Hockney, Joan Mitchell, and Pierre Soulages. “I wanted to connect everything to their palettes and the tools they used, how some of them are messy and some of them are meticulous. To me, that’s very important.”
Freson’s photojournalistic approach extended to the world of advertising when he decided to use local residents instead of models for his work with the tourism campaigns of Jamaica, Bermuda, the Bahamas and Haiti. Freson worked for the Jamaican tourism campaign for decades, during which time, on weeklong stints, he supervised a crew with a writer, an art director, an editor and two to three local guides, carrying up to $50,000 to pay expenses while hoping that the weather worked in their favor.
Freson’s interest in keeping things local took on a life of its own with an assignment from Marie Claire in the late 1970s, which marked the beginning of a new era in Freson’s work. Freson was assigned to collect food from 15 regions in France and bring it to a photography studio. He refused, instead choosing to photograph the farmers, the animals, the produce growing on the farms and in the vineyards, and the process of farm to market to table, among people and their houses and chefs and their restaurants, in each of the 15 regions.
At that time, food photography was “done by famous magazines with very good photographers, who did an exquisite job of photographing impeccable, perfectly selected food on beautifully set tables with brand-new pots and plates,” Freson said. He was more interested in showing the gritty patina of worn-out pots and pans that “looked like grandma’s frying pan!”
“I wanted to show people what the fish looks like in the basket coming out of the water and how the farmers work, bringing the foods to the market, from grain to salmon to fruits,” Freson said. This led to one of his most significant projects, “The Taste of France,” a book featuring over 100 recipes and 375 color photographs, which was published in 1982 and has since been translated into six languages and sold 300,000 copies.
In the late 1990s, Freson and his wife, who were living in the watermill on the family’s 1410 estate in France, found themselves wishing to return to the United States, where their daughter, Babette, was living in their studio and apartment at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Knowing they wanted to live on the coast, the couple drove north until they reached New Hampshire.
Although they hadn’t found their future home, they fondly recalled their Christmas tradition of shopping at L.L. Bean and decided to make the trip to Maine before going to Vermont to visit friends. After visiting L.L. Bean, they looked for a place to spend the night on the coast and drove toward Bailey Island. As luck would have it, they found a room at an island motel that was due to close for the season the following day.
The next morning, on a perfectly clear October day, the couple decided to drive to the end of the island to admire the view. On the way, they saw a “for sale” sign. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Maine picked us. We didn’t pick Maine,” said Freson, whose daughter, a former ballet dancer and veterinarian, now lives next door. “I love the peace of Maine. I love the silence.”
What, you ask, is the best part of a well-lived life? “The most exciting thing for me in my life is discovery, being in front of something you’ve never seen,” Freson said. “Pick your subject and dig into it. Don’t give up too soon. Stay at it. Go further and further and you’ll discover things you never knew.”
That, after all, is the true meaning of the human experience. There is no better story.
The Robert Freson Photographic Archive, which consists of 350,000 images, can now be found at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.