PHOTO | FREEMAN PATTERSON
New Brunswick photographer Freeman Patterson captures nature's intricate tapestry.
Sometimes it seems like all Canadian art is really about landscape. From the Group of Seven's Fred Varley to Daniel Taylor there have been great portraitists. From Jean-Paul Riopelle to Kazuo Nakamura there have been great abstract painters. From Joe Fafard to David Ruben Piqtouqun Canada has produced great sculptors.
Still somehow, every conversation about Canadian art comes around to landscape – from Lawren Harris's abstract Arctic to the interior landscapes in Mary Pratt's kitchen and bathroom paintings, Canadian artists seem to be constantly trying to put a frame around the horizon.
Photographer Freeman Patterson has added to that tradition over nearly five decades of work. Whether in the Namibian desert or his native New Brunswick, Patterson's lush, complex compositions of colour and form have always been about a sense of place.
In Embracing Creation, Patterson attempts to explain what a sense of place means in his photographs.
Patterson began the serious study of photography under Helen Manzer while attending the Union Theological Seminary at New York's Columbia University. His master of divinity thesis was titled "Still Photography as a Medium of Religious Expression."
In 1962 this would have been an audacious, if not slightly ridiculous, notion. There were perfectly respectable thinkers in the art world then who dismissed photography as something much less than serious art.
To suggest peering through a lens and snapping pictures was a way of approaching the divine was a bit much.
At the other end of Patterson's career, in the age of eco-theology and renewed interest in theological cosmology, the idea that a photographer could approach nature searching for God doesn't sound crazy at all. In fact, it might be a downright conservative, respectable notion.
Patterson is a well-known advocate for disciplined, conscious and analytic mastery of photographic skills. In the 1970s and '80s he wrote books of theory and technique. But here, Patterson's prose is concerned with the experience of photographing.
"As I stood washing dishes at my kitchen sink, I was looking out the window at the field beyond," he writes. "Without realizing it, I stopped washing the dishes and stood transfixed by the intricate tapestry stretching out before me. Then, suddenly, I 'woke up.'"
When Patterson wakes up, he grabs a tripod, a lens, a camera and heads out the door. There in a field, at the edge of a bog or at the bottom of a sand dune he works at transforming his waking dream into a picture. It happens to him over and over.
Patterson never claims his reveries are visions or episodes of religious ecstasy. He remains matter-of-fact in his descriptions of how he came to make his pictures.
But he is equally clear that his constant subject, creation, is not just stuff he finds visually interesting. The natural world has meaning – meaning that we cannot decode and forget.
In photography, Patterson is not seeking to merely depict nature but to enter into the landscape and become part of it. He is aware that he too belongs to creation, and that each photograph is a reflection of the photographer – what he thinks, feels and cares about.
Nobody will, and nobody should, buy Embracing Creation for Patterson's explanations of photography. The words are a bonus. The glory of the book is more than 100 photographs beautifully printed and presented. The pictures tell their own story.
Patterson urges us to use his photographs to rediscover who we are – creatures of an awesome God.