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"Embrace," 2003. Courtesy of Freeman Patterson

Image conscious

Freeman Patterson’s new book of nature photos reveals a soulful expression of the spirit within

By Nancy Bauer

We often think of art as a way for artists to communicate with their viewers, and perhaps that is its primary purpose, but art is also a way for artists to look deep into themselves. As Freeman Patterson writes in his latest book of photographs, Embracing Creation, “Art has everything to do with making the unconscious part of ourselves conscious.”

Not only is Patterson one of Canada’s foremost landscape photographers, as the stunning images in Embracing Creation attest, but he is also a superb writer. Spanning his career from 1966 onwards, the book of 100 photographs and accompanying essays was published last year in conjunction with a retrospective exhibition and gala celebration at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton. Each individual photograph is distinct, and yet the viewer can instantly recognize it as the product of Patterson’s vision of the beauty and order of the natural world.

From the very beginning of his journey with photography, Patterson has used images as a way to connect to the spirit within. The title of his 1962 master of divinity thesis from Union Theological Seminary in New York City was Still Photography as a Medium of Religious Expression. He went on to serve as the dean of religious studies at Alberta College, Edmonton, and later worked briefly at Berkeley Studio, The United Church of Canada’s photography and film production house. In his introductory essay to Embracing Creation, exhibition curator Tom Smart writes, “While teaching courses in world religion and education in Edmonton, [Patterson] came to the realization that in order to feel fulfilled he would need to combine a career in teaching with an equally satisfying means of expressing himself creatively.”

Patterson returned to his home province of New Brunswick in 1973 to pursue his artistic interests and to establish a workshop of photography and visual design. Each year since then, he has taught several week-long classes in New Brunswick and, beginning in 1984, in South Africa. He has also led workshops in the United States, Israel, New Zealand and Australia.

“Creation and creativity are inextricably linked” is the epigraph for Embracing Creation, and Patterson’s own engagement with Creation — the natural world — illuminates the universe for him. “Whenever we focus the lens of our camera on anything,” he writes, “we are also focusing it on ourselves. Something in the material world . . . has ‘called,’ however gently or strongly, to our inner self, our spirit, and we are responding. That’s how close the connection is between the material world and the spiritual one.”

He established his base on Shamper’s Bluff, 300 acres of woods and field on the Saint John River near his childhood home. In the book, he describes a life-altering experience there in December 1993: “As I stood washing dishes at my kitchen sink, I was looking out the window at the field beyond. Early winter storms had battered down all the grasses and other plants, snow had fallen and partly melted, and the cloudy bright morning was weaving tiny shadows into the carpet.” He stopped washing to stare out the window and then grabbed his camera and tripod and went out to photograph the field.

“What excited me was the weave, the sheer integration of tones — the white of the snow, the mid-tone of the brown grass, and the darkness of the tiny shadows.” Carefully eliminating everything but the texture of the field — any tree or rock — he focused on the surface created by the snow and the grass. He was struck by the integration that the woven texture illustrated.

The resulting photograph, December Tapestry 1, is stunning in its implications. What draws the eye is not an exotic land or a dramatic angle. It is snow on a commonplace field.

When Patterson came back into the house, he realized he was “higher than a kite.” This euphoria told him that the integrated pattern of the field was a symbol for his need to integrate his life, “to pull everything together.” There would be no one centre of interest, only a life made whole. Just as he combined visual elements into an integrated photograph, he would weave his various activities — his need to garden, to make photographs, to teach, to read and to speculate — into one seamless snow-covered carpet.

To achieve this synthesis, Patterson set out to change his life patterns and to photograph other naturally integrated textures, fulfilling the revelation of that December morning. “When we take an art form seriously, the art we produce is a clear and powerful expression, not just of who we are, but who we want to be,” he writes.

The photographs in the book are from all over the world, but he tells his workshop participants that the best place to make photos is wherever they are. He describes discovering a bog on his property. “There are sacred places for everybody, and it is important for each of us to find them. The bog is a sacred place for me.”

Home is more a spiritual reality than a physical one, he believes. He now makes photos in his study, touching the camera lens to a wine glass sitting on the windowsill with the sun shining through it, focusing on the imperfections in the glass and the prismatic highlights. He is “home,” but he is pursuing the light emanating from outer space.

He writes that a photographer should ask two questions: Why do I choose this subject matter to photograph, and why do I photograph it the way I do? For Patterson, what he chooses to frame in his lens offers a window into his unconscious. “When we begin to realize the inherent truth contained in our images, the mirror-like accuracy of the personal symbols of content and style, we begin to recognize our own art as an important door into the inner rooms of our self. This moment of self-awareness can be transformative.”

Nancy Bauer is a novelist and arts writer in Fredericton. 

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