Emma Belle Richart Freeman

1880, Burton’s Bend, Nebraska ‒ 1928, San Francisco, California

Born and raised on the Nebraska frontier in the late 1800s, Emma Freeman, a young woman with artistic talent and ambition to ‘make it’ in a wider world, left her barely settled part of the frontier and ‘headed West.’ She moved to Denver before making a life in northern California when it seemed wide open economically and culturally. However, many of the so-called freedoms excluded women, and in this milieu, she had many challenges.

In 1902 she ‘set-up shop’ in San Francisco as a commercial photographer, fine art painter, and owner of an art supply store. However, potential customers immediately viewed her with suspicion because making money with a camera was for men only. However, she persevered, gradually built a clientele, received endorsements, and left behind a wide collection of photo images, many of which were portraits of Native Americans depicted with intelligence, pride, dignity, and physical beauty. These pictures reflected Emma’s motivation to persuade white people that the Native Americans should be assimilated as equals and should no longer be marginalized as savages.

Public accolades eventually came her way when her photographs were exhibited in the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco; and “her series of 200 images of Indian studies were distributed in the U.S., France, Canada and Japan.” (Falk) However, as time passed, her name was nearly forgotten. Ironically it was a noted California photographer, Peter Palmquist, who resurrected the story of this creative groundbreaking woman, Emma Freeman.

Palmquist ‘discovered’ Emma when, as an educator and photographer in the late 20th century, he began collecting hundreds of photographs with the intention of “weaving a vast tapestry of California’s past through the lens of as many photographers as possible….” What prompted the quest, he says, was a woman named Emma Freeman. While looking at somebody’s family pictures, he came across four or five romanticized photographs of Native Americans circa 1915, which made no sense to him. The photographer’s name was Emma Freeman, and his curiosity was tweaked. Eventually he found extensive information on her, and using her story as the inspiration, he created an online source, The Women in Photography International Archive.

Of Emma, he wrote: “She was a renegade woman who defied the constraints of the male-dominated world of the early 1900s. She was a photographer intent not on realism but on poetry. She craved artistic recognition but chose to live much of her life in a cultural backwater, a white taking pictures of Indians. Derided as a Bohemian by small-town society, she made her studio a salon for outcasts. Though keen on social acceptance, she courted scandal and a subsequent adultery suit by having a highly publicized fling with an ex-governor of Illinois. Her intimate friends knew her as Toots.”

Additional research has revealed that Emma Freeman was born to William and Belle Richart on a farm near Burton’s Bend on Deer Creek, a tributary of the Republican River in Furnas County in southwestern Nebraska. It had been an area that, if filmed, could have been used as a Hollywood western movie set: miles of prairie grass, sparse population, buffalo herds, Indians, celebrity buffalo hunts, cattle drives, grasshoppers, prairie fires, murders, horse thievery, trading posts, and finally the coming of the railroad. By 1880, when Emma was born, the buffalo and hunters were nearly gone, and were being replaced by farmers, including her parents. Growing up in this environment, Emma saw Indians and whites co-existing and met a lot of frontier characters including ones who hung around the trading post of Ben Burton, founder of the town in 1870. The extent of influences of this time in her life seems unrecorded, but obviously she came to know as human beings all kinds of people, many on the fringe of white society including Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne.

When old enough to leave home, Emma went to Denver, where she worked in a store as a ribbon clerk. In 1902, she married Edwin Ruthven Freeman, and shortly after they moved to San Francisco and opened a stationery and art supplies store in the heart of the city. She studied with Charles Harmon, noted for retouching photographs and, likely influenced by him, Emma became a specialist of hand-colored photographs. Another teacher was oil painter Giuseppe Cadenasso, active in the burgeoning California art scene and described in a book about noted ‘bohemian types’ of that era as “an artist of arresting good looks and matching talents.” (Hjalmarson)

In 1906, having lost nearly everything in the San Francisco earthquake, the Freemans moved 275 miles north to Eureka, California. Edwin worked for a tailor, and Emma opened an art supply store, Freeman Art Company, and set up a studio for commercial photography, a not-so-subtle message that her ‘picture taking’ was a profession. She stirred curiosity by spending much time with the native Indians with whom the locals had had a long history of distrust. She took hundreds of photographs, and often hand colored them and added symbolic adornments to make them attractive and appealing. These romanticized, idealized images bothered people who had contrary opinions of Indians and also stirred cynical reactions artistically from art critics who sought social realism. Apparently her work with its message gained local attention however, and Indians were included in civic events including parades.

During World War I, she earned much publicity with her photographs of a United States submarine, the USS Milwaukee, which had run aground on a beach near Eureka. Art historian Viki Sonstegard wrote: “Freeman was there to capture every detail of the disaster and rushed her photos to San Francisco where they appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle with these words: ‘Every day since the Milwaukee went ashore, Mrs. Freeman has been on the job with her camera. She has taken more than 200 photographs of the scene, most of them under trying conditions of fog and wind and weather.’  Freeman waded through water and rats in the hold of the vessel as she boarded the water-logged cruiser in search of great photographs. In recognition for her documentary work, she was appointed ‘official government photographer’ for all matters relating to the disaster and salvage operation.”

In 1915, Emma and her husband divorced, and she retained the store and studio. In 1919, she returned to San Francisco, and opened a photography studio. But in 1923 that business went under; she blamed events on an unscrupulous business partner, and had to declare bankruptcy. She moved to a smaller store and continued to work until her retirement and marriage to Edward Blake in 1925. On Christmas Eve 1927, Emma Freeman had a stroke and died three months later at age 48.

Her work is in the collection of the California State Library in Sacramento and the Newberry Library, Chicago.

Emma Freeman is not represented in the Museum of Nebraska Art collection.


Ancestry.com, Dec. 2014

“Burton’s Bend,” Nebraska State Historical Society, Web, Dec. 2014

“Emma Belle Freeman,” Women Out West: Art on the Edge of America, Web

Falk, Peter Hastings, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art, Volume I, Print

“Furnas County,” Nebraskana, Web, Dec. 2014

Hjalmarson, Birgitta, Artful Players, p. 171, Print

Hughes, Edan Milton, Artists in California, 1786-1940, Volume I, Print

Palmquist, Peter, Women in Photography International Archive, Web, Dec. 2014

Petteys, Chris, Dictionary of Women Artists Born Before 1900, Print

Seattle Daily Times, newspaper: 5/15/1977, Rumley, Larry, “The Book Bin”

Sonstegard, Viki, Emma Belle Freeman, Print

Researched, written, and copyrighted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

Museum of Nebraska Art Project: Their Place, Their Time: Women Artists in Nebraska, 1825-1945