Author Archives: John Free


The subject was the Havana harbor early in the morning, with the sun shining through the dark clouds of a passing rain squall. The figures in the foreground were constantly moving which provided me with many opportunities to make photographs that I thought would best describe the situation of the Cubans and their environment, and the frailty of man, or the strength of man in relation to the drama of his existence.


I don’t make many exposures with the hope of getting one acceptable image. Each of
the fourteen exposures of the subject area was done with careful thought about
the many variables that made up the subject and how all these factors
influenced the center of interest. The constantly changing scene, offered me
many chances to make different images of the same subject area as it changed in
the brief time that I was there. The rapid fire technique of some photographers
makes me wonder how many of those quickly made exposures were guesses instead
of well thought out attemps to create a relationship between the various
details that are present in the subject area. Guessing scares me, knowing that
I might miss the best instant because I was too busy clicking away without
thinking enough. In forty five years of doing this kind of work, I have learned
how transitory a subject can be and also how important time is and how crucial
it is for me to catch the significance of a situation in one image.
The subject area changed constantly, giving me new opportunities to make images that would show various aspects of the situation. The available lighting was difficult to work with, as it was very early, with the sun shining toward my lens. The dramatic qualities of the sky encouraged me to keep working the subject as it changed over the twenty minutes that I was there.
I chose the vertical format to include what I thought were the important details in the situation before me. The details are very important, in order to give the viewer of my photograph enough information to perceive the subject as I did. (I did, however, make one horizontal image so I could include all of subjects, the motorcycle, the boy, the man with the hat). I had a wide sweeping view of the area in which the main subject, the figures in the water, were located, so I framed the photographs so that unnecessary details were eliminated.


 My intent was to show the contrast between man and his environment, which in this case was the water, clouds, ship and the frailty of man and his relationship to his surroundings. Too much of any detail would have diminished the center of interest, which in this case, is the man or men. The focus was placed on the figures in the water. The sky was an important factor, because of its dramatic qualities and the dark and violent nature of the clouds.
Over the course of the twenty minutes, the human drama continued to play out before me and since my presence did not affect the subject, I continued to photograph, leaving my mind open to the possibilities that might present themselves to me. The tension is always there in a situation such as this. Constantly evaluating what is before my lens and trying to imagine what my best vantage point and intent is as it relates to the subject. I managed to stay with the subject for twenty minutes, but the situation did not last, as the sky became less dramatic and the figures became less noticeable as more people moved into the subject area.





(I did choose the horizontal format in one image to show the change in the scene and the relationship of the machines – the motorcycle, the boy, the man with the hat and  the ship.)


I photographed this subject, both as a photographer and a teacher. I wanted to show how staying in the same place after the first exposure can result in many valuable images. Why stop photographing after the first image has been made?






Posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips, Street Photography Workshops, The Human Condition, Uncategorized, Workshops Tagged , , , , |


My wife Wendy and I recently went to Cuba on a music tour which was organized by Wendy’s sister Nancy Covey, who operates Festival Tours International. It was a People-to-People delegation organized by Project Por Amor.  At first, I thought that there would not be many chances to make photographs while riding across Cuba in a bus. Usually I pick the spots where I feel I will find the best subject matter, and not participate in an organized tour, so I had resolved to make the tour, more for the music than for the photos.

The trip on the bus across Cuba with many friends was a fine way to spend two weeks and see Cuba at the same time. The bus turned out to be a great way for me to photograph. I could relax on the bus and prepare myself for the next stop and all the subject matter that I found almost everywhere.Nancy knew that I would always be looking for subjects and told me that I could always go off by myself to photograph, but I stayed with the group more times than not and was also able to find subjects to work with. Subject is everywhere in Cuba. Nancy planned such  great trip that I did not have to think much or worry about anything, because it was all taken care of by Nancy. All I had to do was think about photos and be back at the bus on time. The trip was wonderful and I made about 200 photos.

I have been back from Cuba for two weeks and in that time I have spent about 150 hours in the darkroom making prints from the six rolls of film that I used in Cuba. My friends who use digital cameras can have a good laugh knowing that I have spent the last two weeks in the darkroom making prints. I have made about 150 prints and now with Wendy’s help, we will put some of them up.

My approach to photographing in Cuba was to combine street photography with social documentary photography, which is why I carried two cameras. I have used Nikon F-3 film cameras for thirty years and I am too afraid to change over to digital and have to learn to be quick all over again. Also, the people who purchase my prints expect traditional fiber based silver prints, so I am still laboring with film. Part of the time, I carried three cameras, because I had done the foolish thing of bringing some color film with me. What was I thinking? I do not like color in my street or social documentary photography, because it is so hard to control in the real world. The person with the yellow hat will be seen first and the point of the photograph might be lost because of the distraction caused by a bright color. I use color when color is content, which is rarely ever found in street photography. I made about twenty color photos and felt silly making them. Who cares what color the car was as long as it’s shiny?

The Nikon F-3 camera was made for pro photographers more than thirty years ago. Pro cameras usually show 100% in the viewfinder, which is very important to me, because I do not like to crop. This is a very fine camera which is very durable and has the finest lenses that I have ever used. No one wants these gems and they can be had for $100.00 with lens. I still have a good laugh when I think that I am using one of the finest cameras ever made and I buy them for $100.00.

I do not enjoy using two cameras, because they slow me down. When I find a subject, I have to imagine it through a 55mm and a 28mm in order to decide which one to use. This is wasted time. Using just one camera with one lens solves this time problem. We must be quick. Using the two cameras worked out well for me. The streets in Cuba can be quite narrow and congested with life, so I used the 28mm much of the time. The 28mm is a sports car type of lens, in that it is very dangerous. The 28mm must be used up very close to the center of interest, or, the wide angle of view might provide too much information to the viewer, and the center of interest might get lost because of so much being visible in the frame. Up close, it is a valuable tool.

I tend to look for three things in a potential subject and then try to form some connection between these three elements, factors or details that when properly framed, make a visual statement about a subject or event in one well timed photograph. I found that the people of Cuba are lovely and will give the photographer no trouble at all. They are a relaxed and happy people and are very polite and easy to be around.

This photo was made while I played one of my favorite games, which is called the isolation challenge. The photographer must make a photo without changing position. This image was made from my seat at lunch with our group in a small fishing village. The image shows the condition of Cuba and the how the people are still rebuilding after the devastation to the southern part of the island during hurricane Sandy.

The photo of the young woman sitting under the photograph of an older woman was made from my chair at a musical event we all attended. This game forces the photographer to make the best of what is in the general area.

Posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips, The Human Condition

Los Angeles 2001

A man’s fingers hold a photograph that I made and gave to him in 1974 and he has carried it with him for 27 years on his meandering across the country, riding freight trains and living by his wits with just the clothes on his back and my photograph.

What is the value of a photograph to a man who seemingly has nothing?

My documentary project in the Los Angeles freight yards, photographing tramps and runaways, ended after ten years in 1983, but in 2001 I returned to the yards just for old times’ sake. As I walked alongside the mainline tracks into L.A. a voice called out. “Hey Mr. Picture man where you headed?” I remembered the unchanged voice instantly and turned to see my old friend smiling at me. He hugged me hard with one arm and with the other, drew his prized possession from his pocket and held it up for me to see, a horribly mutilated, tattered beat up piece of paper. A photograph I had made and given to him in 1974.

We were two old guys hugging by the tracks, each with tears in his eyes as we looked at the tattered photograph that meant so much to both of us. I thought, how could this be? First of all, how could that little photograph have lasted this long carried in the pocket of a wandering man, a rough and tumble man of the road, super tramp among men. He did what most men cannot do. He could be anywhere with nothing and survive and be happy doing it. For 27 years he had been doing that with my photo there in his pocket, ready to be brought out to make him smile. He had tough times, but my photo brought a smile and some comfort to a poor, huddled and cold man who lived this very dangerous lifestyle and would take it out in good times to show off.

“The road is going to get you” the older men will tell you. The freight train is an iron beast that will beat a man to death in a few hundred miles. A boxcar door can slam shut on your dangled legs when the brakes go on and those big steel wheels take your legs away, leaving you to bleed out by the right-of-way. There is no right of way for the tramp, only for the railroad and “if the railroad don’t get you, a predator tramp will wait and hit you upside the head and you dead.” The road gets most men in five years at the most.

He survived, because he was not an alcoholic and he knew in his mind that he was doing something that most men and women could not do. “Put me down anywhere and I will find scrap metal and copper wire and I will be sitting pretty.” He lives his way along the railroad “right of way” and is at peace with himself.

The greatest and most emotionally moving shock that I ever got was when he pulled out my photograph from his dusty pocket. How could this be? What is the worth of a crumpled photograph of a group of bums sitting around together in a trash filled field hard by the main line tracks? They sat at the end of the line and I took a picture and then gave a print to my friend. He is not even in the picture that he loves so much. No one can ever take this experience away from me, or him, and that makes me cry.

My photographic journey has lead me on a search for truthful photographs that might speak to men of other men and each man to himself, and to make photos that could lead to a better understanding and love for others. Oh yes, the camera and my heart have led me to places where maybe some understanding is needed. The camera records the emotion and personal reactions of us as we make photos with the hope that something of value will result from this collaboration of heart mind and soul. This is my love story of my searching journey of love and understanding through photography, and with it reach out with visual poems that might have the power to sooth and make a smile.

During my ten years in the yards, I made photographs of men and women who I would meet again and again over the years as they passed through on the way to nowhere. Many became friends and I always tried to give them photographs, because I saw them swell with smiles and thanks as they held my photos. No one had ever given them a photo of themselves. They called me the “Picture Man” and I love them so. The photographs that I do on assignment are paid for and then go away, the photographs that are purchased by collectors give me money and pleasure, but the pictures I give away, are mine forever.

My photograph had come back to me and I wanted to make a photograph that would somehow preserve the feeling of that special meeting there by the tracks. . The question for me when making a photograph is always what to include in the frame and why? How much information do I need to show in order for the viewer to understand the situation in the photograph? What is the center of interest and what details should I include that might give more strength and meaning to the center of interest and result in a meaningful photograph. What do I need in the image to tell the story?

In this image the center of interest are his hands and the tattered and torn photograph that he held and that was so dear to him and to me. No face. Including the face would distract from the photograph and the face is not important to the story. There are no names when one is on the road.
The most important requirement for the social documentary photographer is to get in close to the subject. Close in with the camera and close in with understanding and compassion for the subject. Getting in close is always difficult in sensitive situations and the method I used to get close to the tramps is for another blog post.

My workshops are designed to show photographers my technique for getting in close, without disturbing the subject and without getting into trouble. I have worked the streets of the world and have developed methods for avoiding any trouble and also methods for getting out of any trouble. The street can be a dangerous place for the unwary or unprepared photographer. I enjoy sharing my technique and philosophy about this wonderful medium.

Posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips, Street Photography Workshops, The Human Condition Tagged , , , , , |


Social documentary project LA YardsOn a cold dark Christmas Eve a very long time ago, two figures slowly walked in search of shelter for the night. They had no money for a room, or even a bed and were exhausted by their long journey. This was the Los Angeles freight yards of 1974 and the two men had ridden for many hours in the bottom of a “Gondola” car which was part of the freight train that had finally stopped in Los Angeles, the farthest west one could travel. They were at the end of the line, which for many, who rode freights west, it surely was the end of the line.


The two men were brothers-in-law and had been on the hard road for many years now. Chasing or running, who knows, but it had started to rain and the men were forced to climb a chain link fence and seek some small shelter in the parked cab of a garbage truck that had no doors. There was a big white crown painted on the side of the truck. Crown Disposal Company, the sign read, with two cold princes of the road huddled inside, while the heavy rain beat a drumming racket on the steel top of the truck, which made sleep impossible, but there was a half gallon of red port between them and also the photographs in his wallet that made the man smile as he looked at the faces by the soft glow of a nearby street lamp.


The photographs were of children lined up for the camera that day seven long years ago, about the time he was to leave forever for a wandering life on that hard, hard road that many men and women have to walk. Two men, haunted by the faces in the wallet and the past lives that lay in ruins without them. Two men in a truck in the cold rain of the seventh Christmas Eve that they have spent on the road, but they had a bottle of wine between them.



Christmas day found them waiting for a train that would take them out of this very dangerous place where hundreds of tramps, runaways and predators came in the winter to escape the cruel cold of the east. Head west they said. Pick oranges off the trees and sleep on a warm beach. There were no oranges or places on the beach, just a hard cruel place where other men waited for the unwary to drop their guard and end up badly beaten or dead at the end of the line.


It was Christmas day and after my wife and three year old son and baby girl had our celebration of presents and cookies, I headed down to the Los Angeles freight yards where I had photographed for a year on a project that was to last for ten years. Ten years of photographing the tragic lives of rail road tramps, hoping that maybe my photographs might in some way provide a more compassionate understanding of the severely damaged and mostly unprotected men and women who wandered on foot along the outskirts of what we call society. Tramps are shunned as bad, dangerous or crazy souls who must be avoided. The truth that I found in that bad, bad place was that these tramps were someones brother or son or father, who had had a bad shock in their lives that they could not handle and so they took to the road of remorse and pain.


It was a loving and very understanding wife who did not mind me leaving on Christmas day for a couple of hours to do what I had done almost daily for the past year.


The brothers-in-law were sitting on the dirt by the side of the main line in and out of L.A., waiting for their destiny to arrive in the form of an outward bound freight train that would take them somewhere else. Anywhere but L.A. I approached them with a smile and a Nikon F, with a 28mm lens, which would force me to get so close that some of their misery would invade my heart and stay with me these many years later. We talked, we shook hands, I photographed as I knew I must to share this subject or life story with others through my photographs. It was so hard for me to listen as their lives poured out to me and me clicking away with tears in my eyes and heart. I must though, because this little situation or life drama that I found myself in was important in some way.


The man with the hat had once been a Cadillac dealer in one of the most affluent cities in the country. He had two families which were unknown to each other. One in Mexico and one in Texas. So many faces in the wallet long gone, with a bottle of wine between them. Seven years gone, with the brother-in-law from Mexico he had persuaded to leave with him on a long search or escape from themselves.


The photographs were of the faces of children who were now many years older. The boy would be fourteen now somewhere, but there was a bottle of wine between them. The bottle was always there, even as he showed off his long ago family, the bottle was there in the background. The empty bottle.

The brother-in-law from Mexico said nothing. He was in pain and mostly sobbed as he turned their last coin in his hand over and over again. Round and hard like the train wheels that beat them up for so many miles. We were friends for the twenty minutes that we spent together on that Christmas day so long ago. In twenty minutes the life story of two tragic men had been poured out to my saddened ears. I still carry their pain. Their stories were very similar to the many stories I was to hear over the ten years of my documentary photography project.


The pictures will never go away. The words are here to stay and I was there. I made these photographs and wrote these words for everyone, but the best thing is that I was there. I photograph because I must.


Posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, The Human Condition Tagged , , , , |



Veterans Day makes me think of Joe, a tramp who I knew and photographed for ten years in the Los Angeles freight yards. He had fought in Korea and had severe PTSD, which was not really recognized in those years. He made rice pudding by going through the dumpsters in Chinatown for leftover rice and in the trash of coffee shops for the last of the non dairy creamers that had been thrown out. It was actually pretty good!


He survived because he was a loner and didn’t drink, unlike the other tramps I met. He didn’t talk to anyone else but talked to me because of my dog, Casper. When the tramps saw Casper, they knew I was not a threat. That made it easy for me to get to know them and photograph them in a non-threatening way.

I knew Joe for several years in the seventies. One day, I noticed that he had gone. The spot by the electric tower where he cooked, he had left two books on the cement platform. The books were old and had come from the San Diego library. “How to Make Money with your Camera” was the title of one book and the other was called “The Study of Man”. I did not take the books because I did not want to disturb anything and as a documentary photographer, I never disturb things. I thought that Joe had left me the books, but I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe he would return, but I never saw him again.

Posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips, The Human Condition



This photograph was made several years ago by my son Scott. The scene was the Halloween celebration in West Hollywood where there were over 500,000 people in the streets and in costume.

Scott saw this “angel” walking and he waited until she was passing by a lighted store window to make the exposure because that was the only light available at that very late hour. I developed the film for him and made a print.

When Scott saw the print, he told me that there was no halo over the head of the angel when he made the photo. A big mystery ensued, until we visited the store and saw that a round light fixture on the ceiling was broken and hanging down. Mystery solved. The light fixture was the halo that appeared above the head of Scott’s angel.

Photography is magic. What are the chances for that halo to appear in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, to exactly the right person in exactly the right costume to walk by?

Posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, The Human Condition

Photo Essay “A Vision of America” in Life Force magazine by John Free

Life Force


The people that live on the road and ride freight trains, are called tramps. They try to remain unseen and are wary of anyone with a camera. With practice, I learned to approach these people and photographthem without too much trouble. Getting in this close to subjects, requires some verbal communication. In this case, I asked them where they were headed and what train they were waiting for. The man sitting on the track said, “We don’t care”. I was very impressed by that.

Click Here to Read Full Essay

Posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, The Human Condition


dorothea lange, social documentary photography, human condition, framingElements, factors and details.

He has been kicked off his land where he has lived for many years, a sad time for him.

I wanted to make a photograph to display the sadness and despondency of the moment. The level that is leaning against the wall, by the door, is not level. The scale that is visible in the lower area is broken as is the record that can just be seen at the very bottom of the photograph. It was a sad coincidence that these items where in the area of my potential photograph. I was lucky that these elements were there.

To make the best use of these items, that add so much to the situation, I decided to use a vertical format which would allow me to include all of these elements, factors and details. That the man is holding some American flags adds to his effectiveness and the irony of the photograph.

Elements, factors and details that can be found in any potential photographic situation must be noticed and included in the frame without distracting from the center of interest. Anyone can do this, but it takes constant practice. The name of the game is the relationships that can be established in the photo because the photographer was aware of the situation and was able to notice and include these important elements which add meaning to the finished photograph.

For this photograph, I used a Nikon F-3 film camera with a 50mm f-2 lens. The F-3, with its 100% viewfinder coverage, allowed me to frame the photograph to include those important elements, facts and details that provide so much more strength to the center of interest.

The excitement and the heartfelt exhilaration that I felt at the time of making this photograph cannot be described in words. The true and valuable purpose of social documentary photography is to show man to man and each man to himself.

Posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips, Street Photography Workshops, The Human Condition Tagged , , , |


“I took the Paris workshop with John last April because I wanted to push myself to a new level that I couldn’t have reached on my own. I was blown away by John’s knowledge and enthusiasm about photography and the simple, philosophical way he got his message across. I knew I would gain something from the course but I never expected to learn as much as I did and be given so much. His skills are amazing and he shows you how to do it… to get real close without disturbing the subject, how to frame, what to include and what to leave out.

I took my best pictures in Paris and I will be doing another course with John as soon as I can because I know he will take me up another level.” David B., London

The Paris workshop is designed to allow participating photographers to spend as much time as possible with me photographing at various locations in the city, with opportunities to learn by watching me work. We will work in the neighborhoods in Paris where street photography had its beginning and was made famous by photographers such as Andre Kertesz, Willie Ronis, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Brassai and many others. We will also study the techniques that made these photographers some of the best known street photographers.

John Free Street Photography Workshop: PARIS September 7 – 9, 2013

The Paris workshop will help you improve your ability to photograph people at close range without discomfort about invading the subject’s privacy. You will learn to recognize potential photographic situations and quickly analyze the elements and factors that give the subject meaning. You will learn to frame and photograph the subject at the precise instant that all elements are arranged and coordinated with proper timing. By being able to work quickly and quietly, you will be able to photograph the event at the correct moment when all elements and factors have converged to a peak of visual intensity.

Lectures and discussions occur as we work together and at meal breaks. There is also ample time for reviewing your photographs and having one-on-one discussions with me. You will be able to observe me finding and evaluating subjects and how I am able to get in close, without disturbing the subject, or even being noticed.

The workshop is limited to ten photographers and is open to all, regardless of their skill level. Beginning photographers will not “get in the way” or “inhibit” more advanced photographers with their presence. All photographers regardless of their skill must constantly study the same things in order to improve their images. We are always students when it comes to our photography.

You will learn to:
1. Recognize and comprehend situations in daily life that, when
photographed, effectively produce pictures rich in their ability to communicate to the viewer what the photographer intended;
2. Work quickly and quietly without having to think about or look at the
3. Gain an enhanced awareness of how to frame in a viewfinder various details, elements and factors that make up the subject and how important proper timing is in capturing the moment;
4. Produce photographs that entertain, educate or in some way, emotionally affect the viewer for having seen them;
5. Photograph in sensitive situations.

The daily locations are subject to change based upon events or photographic opportunities. Each morning we will meet at 9:00 a.m. at one of the many parks to review each photographer’s work from the previous day. Students should be prepared for extensive walking and occasional Metro rides to various locations. I try to choose the areas of the city where I have had the best luck in finding suitable subject material.

MATERIALS: A camera with manual settings is suggested. Digital photographs will be reviewed each day. If using a film camera you can send me scans of your photos after the workshop. Critiques are optional and are offered free of charge for one year after the workshop.

The cost of the workshop is $1,200 ($900 for previous students). Students will provide their own transportation, lodging and meals, as well as print processing (if using film). The workshop includes an introductory lecture and the opportunity to work one-on-one with me to develop an individual working technique tailored to fit each photographer’s unique personal vision.

A 50% deposit is required to reserve a space, the balance to be paid by August 16. Payment may be made by personal check or through PayPal. Cancellations must be made no later than two weeks in advance for a refund minus at 10% cancellation fee. In the event that the workshop is cancelled for any reason, participants will receive a full refund.

Payment Options

Checks should be sent to: John Free
PO Box 697
Tujunga, CA 91043

Posted in Street Photography Workshops


homeless woman, human conditionThe place is Venice, California in the mid 1980’s. A sidelong glance revealed “Dear Mom” on the much read letter dated September 26, 1977. The gloved hand, the dirty coat and the shopping cart told me the story that I wanted to record in a photograph. As a son, I was captured and my heart was melted by the “Dear Mom.” Two quick shots and I was gone. Nothing was interrupted and no invasion of privacy as there was no intent. It was not until later in the darkroom that I was able to read the contents of the letter. Here are the fragments of the letter that are visible in the photo.

Dear Mom.

Thank you for your letter telling us where you are….Happy to learn you are well….although Gloria…me that you have a high blood pressure problem. That concerns us. I hope it’s not serious.

You know I was in Los Angel.…places looking for you. I….you in advance becau.…usually tentative….Los Angeles more….is base….weekend you arr….

Karen was….baby girl….She had….and she….defect.

Archie….corresp….in a pho….

Just last year in London, I was showing the photo to a friend and he asked where it was taken. I told him it was taken in Venice and he asked the specific location. I told him it was on the boardwalk in front of the Jewish Center. He was very surprised and said that coincidentally, he was building a house just a block away.

Posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips Tagged , , |