Arny Freytag – A Playboy Centerfold Master

by Doc Glidewell

Watch most photographers shoot a beautiful girl and you’ll see them check each shot on the camera’s display and then have the model move to the next pose. Arny Freytag doesn’t work that way. Arny’s method is to meticulously and repeatedly shoot each image until it’s “perfect”. His camera, mounted on a tripod, is tethered to a 17″ laptop showing large thumbnails and to a 30″ monitor displaying full photos. “I don’t understand what people think they see on those camera displays. I want to see everything. I don’t like surprises.” That attitude underlies a 35-year career creating the world-standard for carefully crafted photos of beautiful women. Arny Freytag shoots centerfolds for Playboy.

Raised in the Evergreen Park section of southwest Chicago, Freytag’s mother was a commercial artist who taught him to draw. After high school he attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts where he found that his talent was for design rather than painting, and where he discovered photography. “I loved the speed and the gadgetry of it” says Freytag, “and I was good enough that I became a student teacher.” After graduation, the choice of a serious photography school came down to the Rochester Institute of Technology or the Brooks Institute. Rochester was in western New York; Brooks was in sunny southern California. He chose Brooks.

“I liked Brooks because they were very technical and very strict, but any sexy photos or nudity was out of the question,” he says. So when a teacher called him in over a B&W nude he submitted in his last class, he thought he was in trouble. In fact, the teacher asked to see more such work and eventually told Freytag “You should work for Playboy.” Arny’s reaction: “Are you kidding me?”

So in 1974 he checked into a drug and pimp-infested hotel in smog-laden LA, ready to make his mark in the big city and try for Playboy. He hated it and wanted out but when his teacher called with news of an internship at Playboy, he was stuck. Sort of. “Within a year I was getting assignments traveling the world with an unlimited expense account, shooting Bunnies and ‘Girls of this’ and ‘Girls of that’. I’d be in the Caribbean one week, Russia the next, and London the week after… it was crazy. My assistant was my best friend and together we traveled the world shooting beautiful girls.”

Playboy – the film era

Back home, it was less glamorous. Playboy then had a very small studio atop an office building on Sunset Blvd. “We couldn’t get any props to the studio that didn’t fit in the elevator. Eventually they moved us downstairs.” And the workload was grueling. In the film era, Freytag was shooting 240 days a year including 30+ days of meetings, travel, and design work. Essentially it meant shooting every day of the year possible including many weekends and holidays. According to Freytag, “We didn’t just do the centerfolds. We did covers, pictorials, two features every month and special features like ‘What Sort of Man Reads Playboy’, plus calendars, subscription ads, on and on and on.”

Richard Fegley, Mario Casilli and Ken Marcus were then Playboy’s head photographers. “They were all great guys, but Ken was especially generous; he gave me a lot of his time and expertise.” Freytag’s first assignments were made by Marilynn Grabowski who, until her recent retirement was Freytag’s editor for over thirty years. “Marilynn found me and trained me. She had an incredibly good eye and immaculate taste. I owe her a lot.”

But Marilynn was a perfectionist. “Whatever we brought in, whether it was clothes, or bed sheets, or furniture, it was never good enough. It had to be the best of the best. And she knew her stuff. She would see things that other people wouldn’t see.” Ultimately, the drive for perfection came from the top. Hefner had a reputation for finding the minutest errors or distracting elements in a photo. Freytag muses, “I think she was paranoid that he would see something she missed so she developed her eye to match his.”

White skin from New Jersey

Still, Freytag regarded some of her demands as comical. He tells the story: “Marilynn would hand me a tear sheet from Vogue of some Brazilian model who is six feet tall in beautiful clothes, a pro whose been modeling since she’s five and can move and bend and pose to perfection. And she’s got this beautiful dark olive skin. Marilyn says ‘I want your girl to look like this.’ And my girl, the Playmate in front of me, is a nervous five-foot three-inch nineteen year-old with red hair, freckles, and white skin from New Jersey. How am I supposed to do that”?

Part of his genius is dealing with these “girls next door.” Typically, a new Playmate has had absolutely no modeling experience. She has seen a professional photographer only for her high-school photos. Yet, within a half-hour of meeting her, Freytag has to get her comfortable with posing naked in a studio full of strangers. “I just try to be as comfortable to be around as possible. I explain each step of the process and treat them like I care about them, which I do,” he says. Still, glamour photographers will be comforted to know that even he runs into “one expression” girls whose facial repertoire is nil. And he resorts to the same tricks – asking them to pronounce the vowels, or squint, or inhale and blow softly – with the same uncertain success. “I just keep at it until I get an expression I want.” And like his photographic brethren, Freytag finds many promising “models” unwilling to work. “I tell them to stand in front of a mirror and practice expressions, and I get all sorts of excuses why they don’t. They want to be like Carmen Electra but don’t want to work at it. It’s frustrating” he says.

Massive Amounts of Light

A signature Freytag image is one crafted with 20 to 30 narrowly targeted strobe heads. “Each picture is like a blank canvas; every time you add a light, it’s the stroke of a brush. And that stroke creates shape.” To confine those strokes, most lights have grids or flags. That complexity, combined with that drive for perfection, led to arduous photo sessions.

“It was unbelievable to take one picture. We’d move one prop a fraction of an inch and shoot again. Move another prop and repeat. And one hair would be out of place or one piece of wardrobe and we’d shoot again – it was awful.” Models were so stunned by the whole process, they seldom complained, even though they weren’t allowed to move for hours at a time, five days in a row.

Freytag once calculated that, by multiplying the number of Polaroids he used per day times the two-minute development time, he was using up two weeks of each year just waiting for Polaroids. “Today, I take the shot, look over at the monitor, make a correction, and shoot it again. I used to send the films to the lab and go out to the beach. Now I’m really pale. I lost my tan to digital,” he says.

The 8 x 10 view camera, though producing images that are still unsurpassed, imposed further technical burdens on the process. The number of lights was Freytag’s artistic decision, but the power of those lights was driven by the film size and paltry 64 ASA (ISO) rating of Ektachrome. To maintain a reasonable depth-of-field, with so large a film plane, requires very small apertures. Landscape photographers, using an 8×10 and blessed with the sun as a light source, routinely expose at f/64 or f/128. In the studio it’s another matter. Freytag remembers that their goal was an f/22 “but we could only assemble so much firepower in one studio.” He would often use thirty strobe heads, all high-powered, each with their own power pack and several 5000 watt bi-tubed heads, each driven by dual 2500 watt packs, “…and we still had trouble getting enough light for f/22. Everything was maxed-out. When you clicked the shutter on that setup you could feel the wiring vibrate. It was massive.” Freytag recalls. “But we were losing almost a stop to bellows compensation and just couldn’t get any more power. We sometimes lost depth of field but had to settle for f/16.”

Playboy today

Today it’s a whole new world. Freytag and his assistants used to spend five days on a centerfold by itself – just for the one shot – and roughly two and a half weeks doing the secondary photos. They would fly an entire crew to the girl’s house and shoot her at home, and with her dog, and whatever. Today the centerfold takes one day. The girl sends in pictures and the better ones are sent to Hef. He will OK some for a test and the girl will come to the studio. They do two such tests a day with full makeup and styling, a set, and full lighting. Hefner then decides if either will be a Playmate.

Now that digital cameras have obviated the need for exotic amounts of power, Freytag’s current equipment is surprisingly mundane. The strobes are a mix of Balcars, ProPhotos, Hensels, and Norman. Even the camera is a medium-line model. “Your not going to believe this,” Freytag says, “I shot the last centerfold with a Canon 5D Mk II. Crazy, huh”? In Freytag’s view, digital cameras have simply surpassed what the magazine printing process can resolve. “We have Hasselblads and I could use a digital back but they are hard to use and I don’t like the way they feel. The medium frame image will look better on a monitor and if you’re making print for an art gallery, maybe, maybe, it would make a difference but not on the printed page of a magazine.” His favorite lens: the ubiquitous 70-200 f/2.8 zoom. “I actually like a 300mm better but it’s too long for the studio,” he says. He does use a flash meter and, when mixing strobe light sources, e.g., slightly different colored soft boxes or umbrellas, a color meter.

With a history of such painstaking craftsmanship, it isn’t surprising that he is disdainful of fads. On ring flashes: “They strike me as a lazy man’s tool. I don’t like them because they destroy contour. Guys like Terry Richardson make a career out of it but it’s just a fad. His new Pirelli calendar is just awful.” The same goes for the currently fashionable overexposed highlights: “Why would you purposefully destroy detail in an image?” he asks.

Freytag prides himself on the fact that his images are “clean” and can run in the magazine direct from his camera. He doesn’t use Photoshop and very little is done to his images during production. (See An Original Freytag Centerfold.)

Exactly how he creates such precise images will be revealed through Shoot The Centerfold, his new educational venture with photographers Jarmo Pohjaniemi and David Mecey. Freytag has produced a series of DVDs and will conduct workshops guiding others to produce images with the mark of the master. Despite explaining the details of his work, Freytag expresses no worries about revealing his secrets. He knows that every photographer must bring his own eye and aesthetic to the task. The greater his mastery of the tools, and the more painstaking work he does, the more likely his success. That’s how Freytag did it.

© Copyright 2011, R. A. Glidewell.

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