“I have nothing to say about what somebody brings to my work. If that’s what they bring to it that’s what they take from it,” he says, resignation hanging in the air, released with a sigh. Some don’t see the glory he takes in. The dark, the night, the unseen thing can be disturbing. To DeFreest, it is a thing of beauty.
To be fair, DeFreest does have a fascination with horror films. It’s not the macabre that piques his interest — though he can be a bit tickled by it. From the time he was a boy he was drawn to horror films and he lobbied his parents hard to watch “The Bride of Frankenstein.”
“I was eight years old at the time and the entire Universal library of horror films fascinated me,” he says. “To me, it wasn’t scary. It was a different kind of beauty than the daytime. Because it plays on your imagination and I am all about feeding your imagination.”
He spent the following decades studying the people behind the films. He sought out the actors and behind-the-scenes players, learning everything he could about them. He met Peter Cushing, “one of the greatest actors of all time… I drew his portrait and he accepted it.”
DeFreest is Boris Karloff’s greatest fan.
“After six books and hundreds of interviews with people who worked with him, I know a little bit about him,” he says wryly. I had the great fortune of meeting his daughter.” Sarah Karloff, by contrast, was frightened by the Wizard of Oz around the same age DeFreest was becoming fascinated with horror films.
His passion brought him to study film and theater in upstate New York where he grew up. He did everything theater: acting, set design, filmography. He later worked in television as a videographer in Atlanta and behind the scenes on some movie sets.
“I fell in love with cinematography. I fell in love with lighting.” DeFreest spent ten years as a photographer in Las Vegas. He hated it. He moved to Washington, where his love of light in the darkness came together with his love of railroads — “I was born with creosote in my blood.”
Railroad tracks, DeFreest says, are “an incredible opportunity for composition. It’s a gold mine, whether you like trains or not. Abandoned depots. Freight cars. Crossings. I thought I had a built in audience among train watchers. But they want to see the rivets and they want to know what type of train is coming through. I use trains as an effect rather than as subject.” There is more to it than composition, though.
“I don’t know if there is such a thing as reincarnation, but when I am out at night, I am haunted by a memory I never experienced and I can’t remember what it was. It sounds so….” He trails off, shifts in his seat, and begins to speak again, waving his long fingers in the air as he thinks aloud. “I am very happy…,” he pauses again. “I am content to be around a railroad environment. It pulls the depression right out of me. There’s something beautiful about being there and also very sad. I just wish I knew what I was trying to remember.”
He returns to discussing his images, the use of locomotive light to illuminate his composition, the fog he calls both his friend and a “harsh mistress,” and the stories he creates in his imagination while staking his claim in a single spot on earth, waiting hours for the fog to shift, the moon to shine and a rail engine to pass.
Not one of his photographs is digitally edited. He creates them on film, and only allows the old-school technique of dodging and burning to alter what he captures.
It has taken DeFreest years to become a master at what he does. He has learned to use the fog to diffuse light and to spend hours making multiple exposures in a single frame, allowing the moon’s reflected sunlight and a passing train to reveal the night’s story in his lens.
“It’s stunning. I can get moonlight to illuminate my shots in a way the sun can’t even match. The fog adds a beautiful, diffused, glorious glow.”
It can be as many as nine or ten exposures taken over a three hour period. Some exposures may be as long as five minutes. He may get only two photographs in an entire evening. And there is no way to know if the hours spent will produce what he envisions in his mind’s eye. Only the chemical bath in the darkroom will tell the full story.
“I have hundreds and hundreds of photographs that will never see the light of day. They are terrible. Absolutely awful,” he says, alluding to his early efforts. “In the beginning I didn’t have that much equipment or knowledge of photography until one fateful night… It’s a fascinating and boring story.”
As the story goes, he found himself with more passion than equipment or skill in the North Cascades by railroad tracks near Skykomish, trying to capture the night. Artist Russ Larsen and his wife, Yvonne, pulled over to know why this man was pointing a camera into the darkness. Larsen set DeFreest up with his first gallery opening where he sold four prints.
DeFreest has convinced himself that nobody is interested in his story. And maybe not his photography, either. But the high praise and gallery showing he received from Larsen was impetus to pursue his art. And he is called to it, whether or not he sells his work. Maybe, he says, he will remain a starving artist. Either way, DeFreest will never stop photographing the night.
“I would like to think that every time I go out and get a photograph that I find a piece of myself,” he says. “If I find enough pieces of myself I can put Robert together. People who think they know me, they think I gravitate to this stuff because it’s uneasy or uncomfortable. I have no sense of dread. I see nothing but absolute beauty. There is a magnified solitude. I call it a mournful beauty.”