Local photographer Carol Freeman aims to be an advocate for the outdoors through her camera lens.
Early in the morning, Carol Freeman will take her camera out into nature and take hundreds of photographs.
She prefers spring, summer and fall mornings when everything is covered in dew. Rarely, she'll head out to capture photos of the frost crystals of early winter.
"Everything is transformed into this magical world for an hour or two and then it's just gone," the Glenview resident said. "It's so cool."
But aside from taking photos of this magical world, in six years Carol Freeman has found and photographed 120 endangered species in Illinois.
It took thousands of photographs, but each one has been captured on her Nikon. But Freeman still has a ways to go before her project is complete.
Dubbed the Endangered Species Photography Project, Freeman aims to capture images of all 483 endangered plants and animals native to Illinois.
She has had a camera in her hands since she was little but wasn't always a photographer by trade.
"In college I took my first black and white photography class," Freeman said. "I was majoring in graphic design at the time and photography classes were elective courses. I always liked photography so I took one in black and white and I loved it."
Freeman recalls getting Ansel Adams' photo calendars every year to hang in her dorm room and she quickly found herself taking as many photography classes as she was taking graphic design classes.
"(Photography) was really wonderful; I just loved it," she said.
This love would come back to Freeman after she began her own graphic design company in 1990; one of her first customers was a small store in Evanston called Upstart Crow.
"They sold outdoor gear, bird supplies, binoculars, and they were right around the corner from where I lived in my studio," she said.
Freeman would discuss design work with Upstart Crow staff and their vision for the advertisements they were going to run. In the process, they also told her about all the birds and wildlife the staff had encountered in the area. Freeman's interest was peaked.
"They really opened my eyes to all this wildlife that was in my own back yard and I had no idea it was there," she said. "On the weekend I would go out and look for the birds they had talked about and I would go in with my slides and they would help me identify what I had seen."
Having taken all the photos, Freeman wondered if any would work for the advertisements for the Upstart Crow. This concept sparked another idea for Freeman and her business — what if she could incorporate photography into her graphic design business?
She actively sought out other clients similar to the Upstart Crow that could use graphic design and photography. Freeman was then hired by the Chicago Botanic Garden to work on their newsletter and the Nature Conservancy of Illinois.
"I would get pictures and it was perfect because I knew what they needed for the project," Freeman said.
Finally, she had found a way to combine her love of photography with her business. But after about 10 years of running her graphic design company, Freeman realized that she much preferred taking photos than managing the studio.
"It had gotten bigger and bigger," Freeman said about her business. "I had known the art director at Chicago Wilderness magazine for four years and I was getting known in the environmental community."
In 2003, Freeman sold her company and has been focusing her efforts on photography full-time ever since.
Through her work with Chicago Wilderness, Freeman learned about the Chicago Botanic Garden Plants of Concern program, the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, the North Branch Restoration group and the Nature Conservancy.
These organizations would put out requests for photos of specific species and most of the submissions were from scientists doing research in the field.
Freeman thought the artistic quality; lighting and angle of the photos being submitted were missing and realized there was a need for high-quality, beautiful pictures of these endangered species.
"I thought, 'Well, wouldn't it be fun if I could go photograph them all?'" Freeman said.
She began going through the list of all 483 endangered species in Illinois and found that she already had taken photos of about 20 of them. For the last six years she has been seeking out and finding 100 more.
"Carol has been partnered with Plants of Concern for at least five years," said Susanne Masi, plant conservationist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. "She approached me about partnering because her goal was to photograph all the endangered and threatened species in Illinois."
Masi spoke highly of Freeman's work, saying she is very professional and serious about her photography:
"She does it from her heart, so committed to it. She just has a way of getting close up and personal with the things she shows."
Freeman doesn't just keep all the photos to herself.
Each year she prints an art calendar of her best photos. All the photos can be framed and the calendar is produced locally, supporting local businesses.
"She's a photographer with a mission," said Stephen Packard, director of the Chicago Audubon Society. "She goes to a lot of trouble to make sure her photos are useful to people doing conservation, work or education."
Packard said Freeman wants her photographs to convey not just shapes and colors but that there's an underlying meaning.
"She's always trying to identify what they mean in the context of ecosystems," Packard said.
This year's calendar features a bobcat that was rescued and currently lives at Middlefork Savanna Forest Preserve in Lake Forest as well as other endangered species. But Freeman's calendar isn't all about profit. Deerfield High School students are selling her calendar to raise money for an outdoor classroom.
Her goal for the printed products, the Endangered Species Photography Project and every photo she takes is the same: awareness.
"Most people don't even realize what is here and what a rich state we live in," Freeman said. "The fact that we have 483 species means we have the habitat — the bogs, dunes, prairie, fens, woodlands, and wetlands, Lake Michigan. We have rivers.
"Illinois is really quite a diverse state and, because of it, we have a big responsibility to look at things a little differently. Once you start looking you really start to see all this stuff."