As professional collaborators, James and William Freeman achieved great success with their quality portraits and innovative approach. Their unusually elongated studio enabled them to overcome some technical limitations of the day. James had a particularly sophisticated understanding of photography, and had experimented with microphotography using a microscope and an artificial light source.
as was his brother, William (1809-1895), a professional photographer; William was born in Bristol, Somerset, in 1809, which is probably where James was also born. They became associated with photography soon after the announcement by Daguerre of his process. James Freeman purchased the exclusive right to produce daguerreotypes in the county of Somerset from Richard Beard early in the 1840s, thereby becoming one of the first professional photographers in the world. When they decided to come to Australia both brothers were married with children; William had married Margaret Ann Dayrell, and James had married Louisa, whose maiden name is not known. William, his wife and five children arrived at Sydney on board the Elizabeth on 6 April 1853. They were joined on 22 October 1854 by James and Louisa Freeman and an unidentified Miss Freeman who had come out together in the Sovereign of the Seas .
The extent of William Freeman’s involvement with his brother’s English photographic business is not known. However, on arrival William apparently joined the existing Sydney Photographic Rooms in Bridge Street run by John Wheeler . In February 1854 Wheeler & Co. advertised their move to a suite of rooms at George Street and, following the arrival of James Freeman, it was announced in November 1854 that the firm would henceforth be known as Freeman Brothers & Wheeler. Under this name they exhibited 'Photographic and other Sun Pictures’ at the 1854 Australian Museum Exhibition and advertised portraits taken by the collodiotype, daguerreotype and talbotype processes as well as stereo views. James Freeman had brought the technique for producing collodiotype (wet-plate) photographs with him together with 'a first rate Artist from England to colour all kinds of Photographic Pictures with the highest finish’.
Early in 1855 the company became simply Freeman Brothers. In their advertising they stressed the quality of their coloured portraits and views of Sydney as being the result of the latest techniques. In March they announced the completion of a new studio which contained a skylight with 150 square feet (45 sq. m) of glass enabling 'brilliant’ portraits to be taken in any weather. Since this new studio was 30 feet (9 m) long the distortion hitherto inevitable because of inadequate distances between camera and subject was avoided. It also facilitated group portraits. Mirrors were used to solve the lateral reversal of images which otherwise occurred with the daguerreotype and ambrotype processes. There was also a special dressing compartment for ladies.
Freeman Brothers rapidly became one of Sydney’s largest and best-known photographic studios. In 1856 they received permission to photograph the first responsible government in New South Wales provided that the result was not shown in the colony: their rather pedestrian image of five gentlemen sitting around a table nevertheless became widely known. In 1858 they produced one of Sydney’s earliest photographic panoramas, ten linked views taken from the observatory tower. That December they exhibited at the first photographic conversazione of the Philosophical (later Royal) Society of New South Wales when James Freeman delivered a paper, 'On the Progress of Photography and its Application to the Arts and Sciences’. In this he expressed his preference for the talbotype or salted paper process (which produced a negative image on sensitised paper and then a positive image by contact printing onto another piece of sensitised paper).
Most of Freeman Brothers’ early photographs, however, were daguerreotypes (which produced an image directly onto a silver-coated metal plate), probably because of the ready availability of materials for that process in Sydney. But in his paper James Freeman had described the scientific applications of photography, from astronomy to pathology, and stated that he had experimented with micro-photography, using a microscope and an artificial light source, although no surviving examples are known. Indeed, his paper showed a most sophisticated knowledge of photographic technology, revealing, in particular, that he had been experimenting with the production of a workable dry plate (not commercially used in Australia until c. 1880), thereby overcoming the difficulties of the wet-plate (collodion) method where plates had to be sensitised and then exposed while still wet, thus requiring a photographer to have a portable darkroom when away from the studio.
The Freemans’ own portable darkrooms took various forms, one of the most unusual being a chamber erected in 1859 above the statue of Governor Bourke in the Sydney Botanic Gardens, 45 feet (13.7 m) above ground level, in order to take twelve collodiotypes showing the site and immediate neighbourhood of Sydney’s proposed new Houses of Parliament 'for the assistance of architects in Europe who may wish to compete for designs’ in the international competition being held by the New South Wales government. Their photographs, which they also sold locally, were praised in the Sydney Morning Herald on 13 May 1859: 'The most striking characteristics of the views are the brilliancy of the lights, the sharpness of the outlines and the clearness of the minutest points; thus accurately displaying not only the actual objects, but also the intense transparency of our Australian atmosphere. The remoter parts of the landscape, such as the North Shore and the harbour scenery, with the ships at anchor are remarkably distinct; while the architecture of the houses of Macquarie-street is produced with almost stereoscopic effect’.
The 1860s saw the great popularity of the carte-de-visite, a small card with a print attached, by which time Freeman Brothers were a large and prosperous commercial studio. They exhibited a collection of their work at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts in February 1861, then at the London International Exhibition of 1862. Their repertoire included the then technically-advanced 'composition photograph’ (produced by arranging and joining multiple separate photographs), the Sydney Morning Herald of 12 July 1862 noting that they had 'just completed a magnificent picture comprising fifty-four portraits of officers belonging to the Sydney and Suburban companies of the Volunteer force’ 6 × 4 feet (182 × 121 cm) in size and that a similar work was in progress of the mayor and aldermen of the city. In May 1864 Freemans were reported as having 'just imported an apparatus for the production of panoramic photographs on a large scale’—a Sutton Panoramic Camera with a water-filled 'globular’ lens with which they took a four-part view of Sydney from Observatory Hill and a view of Campbell’s Wharf (prints of both are in the Mitchell Library). A panoramic view of Brisbane, taken by an assistant, was advertised in Sydney on 28 September.
Freemans had been producing large albumen paper prints of Sydney for several years before they began to be used as the basis for newspaper illustrations. In June 1864 a wood-engraving of The Viaduct at Menangle by F. Cubitt, based on one of their photographs, appeared in the Illustrated Sydney News and from then on a number of their photographs of Sydney and its celebrities were engraved. They again improved their studio in 1864, announcing at its reopening in January 1865 that 'by a simple and beautiful arrangement, any kind of light can be thrown on the sitter to suit the varieties of dress or complexion, so that the sunniest effects of a Lawrence or a Reynolds can be obtained, varying down to the most sombre and effective tones of a Rembrandt’.
Several Freeman employees became photographers in their own right. When Barcroft Capel Boake started his own studio at Balmain in 1866 he advertised as being 'from Freeman Brothers’. Pierce Mott Cazneau began his career there, and met and married Emily Florence Bentley ( Cazneau ) when she was working for Freeman Brothers as a colourist and miniature painter. In 1866 the Freemans went into partnership with Victor A. Prout , promoting the firm as 'photographers to their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales [Prout] and His Excellency the Governor in Chief and Lady Young [Freemans]’.
Listed as photographers of George Street in Sands Sydney Directory for 1867, that February Freeman Brothers & Prout had actually opened new studios and gallery at Castlereagh Street North, a converted residence comprising a public reception and picture gallery, retiring rooms for ladies and children, a large and well-ventilated studio and a private painting room for finishing large portraits in oils. A unique feature, they stated, was an outdoor gallery for taking 'Equestrian Portraits, Groups, Horses, Dogs and Cats’. Newly imported 'enlarging apparatus’ offered superior results and one of the fastest lenses in existence eliminated long exposures when photographing children. On 12 June 1868 an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald announced the completion of major alterations to what had been Edwin Dalton 's Royal Photographic Gallery at George Street for Mr W. Freeman. The partnership with Prout had ended; he remained in Castlereagh Street. The brothers occupied the studio, purchasing Dalton’s collection of glass-plate negatives from the previous tenant, Thomas Felton .
Soon afterwards both James and William Freeman returned to England. After James died in 1870, William came back to Sydney and took over the Oswald Allen studios in George Street. During the 1870s and 1880s, from several locations in George Street, the Freeman studios produced many thousands of portraits, mostly cartes-de-visite and the larger cabinet-size photographs. After winning first prize for his photographs at the 1888 Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne, William Freeman retired and went to live with his son, William Henry Freeman, a bank manager at Goulburn, then with his daughter, Lucy Beckles Logan, at Newcastle. He died in March 1895 and was buried in the Sandgate Cemetery outside Newcastle. When probate was granted on his will, his estate was worth £2041.
The Freemans are represented in most major public collections. The Society of Australian Genealogists (Sydney), which holds Portrait of David Houison 1865, carte-de-visite, and Portrait of Katie Dawson mid 1880s, cabinet photograph; the Mitchell Library, which holds Portrait of J.F. Mann 1850s, cased sixth plate tinted daguerreotype; and the Historic Photographs Collection (Macleay Museum, University of Sydney) have significant holdings.