It seems unusual that a photographer would write about his mother’s death in a book featuring a retrospective of his photography. After all, the images in Freeman Patterson’s ShadowLight (HarperCollins, $55) depict mostly landscapes— misty New Brunswick fields, Namibian sand dunes, New Zealand riverbeds aflame with scarlet lichen. But for the celebrated photographer, the natural and the spiritual worlds are closely linked. So, in discussing his career in the book’s lengthy memoir, Patterson delves into his inner life and the people who shaped it—including Ethel Patterson, who died in 1992. The photographer selected the 100 images in the book, culled from the 100,000 slides he keeps in his home on the family farm in Shamper’s Bluff, N.B., because he feels that they are visual keys to his psyche. “I’d taken an amazing number of photos of huge, circular objects like rocks and boulders in the Andes and Africa,” Patterson, 59, told Maclean’s. “It was like a recurring dream.” He also noticed that, over time, he had shifted his emphasis to photos exploring texture. “One of my favorites was a shot of crushed gravel, grey with flecks of snow and grass,” he says. “For me, the integration in that picture was synonymous with pulling together a lot of strands in my life.”
That kind of introspection and abstract thought comes up frequently in Patterson’s conversation. But the self-analysis is coupled with a lively sense of humor and a warm openness. What is more surprising is his passion for motorcycles: he owns a HarleyDavidson, has belonged to a Harley owners group in Saint John since 1991, and has travelled through New Zealand on a motorcycle, taking pictures of bikers. “People have trouble reconciling these things about me, because of negative stereotypes about bikes,” he says. “But it’s really fun, and it’s environmentally less damaging than cars.”
Photographer, teacher, world traveller, Patterson has reason to feel that his life may be coming together in new and satisfying ways. While he has already earned a lengthy list of national and international honors— including the Order of Canada and the highest award of the Fédération Internationale de l’Art Photographique in Bern, Switzerland—recent developments have brought his pleasing, accessible work more public exposure. In Toronto, the Royal Ontario Museum is hosting a four-month exhibition, ending on Feb. 23, of 45 photographs from ShadowLight. And his eight earlier books have sold more than 400,000 copies in Canada and abroad.
Meanwhile, Patterson has photography workshops lined up two years into the future. He holds one-day events and weeklong seminars near his home, as well as in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Israel and South Africa. The youngest participant he ever had was a 10-year-old girl, the oldest a 91-year-old woman. “Some people buy a camera and ship it to me directly just before the workshop,” says Patterson. ‘They don’t even know how to load one.” Most, though, are people in professional careers who regard photography as a creative outlet. Patterson has respect for amateurs, claiming that “in the dens and basements of this country are rich troves of remarkable photos which, in many ways, tell the story of this country.”
Antje Lingner, a former graphic designer who attended Patterson’s workshops in New Brunswick for three years in a row in the mid-1970s, was at a recent one-day Toronto seminar. “I’m still learning from him,” she says. “Whatever he does, it’s always fresh and inspiring.” A dozen years ago, she took a friend’s teenage son who was unsure of his career aspirations to a session. According to Lingner, at the end of the day
the young man, Peter Fleming, said he knew what he wanted to do with his life. “It focused him, not on photography specifically, but on a creative life,” she recalls. Now, Fleming is a 36-year-old artisan who crafts fine furniture, and has his pieces exhibited in galleries.
If the New Brunswick sessions are the most heavily attended ones—Patterson holds them in June, July and October—the South African ones are certainly the most exotic. Since 1980, Patterson has travelled regularly to the isolated mountain desert in Namaqualand, near the Namibian border. He loves to photograph the spectacular desert flowers that bloom unpredictably depending on the weather.
Namaqualand is light-years away from Patterson’s beginnings on the Kingston Peninsula in rural New Brunswick. The eldest of two children, he grew up doing chores on the family farm, which overlooks the Saint John River and Belleisle Bay. He had a difficult relationship with his father, an authoritarian who had little use for the rosebushes that the teenage Patterson had planted, and dug them up. However, he had a deep bond with his mother who, he says, was an intuitive woman with a deep appreciation of nature and color. The esthetic sense she nurtured in Patterson would lead him to photography, which he describes as “a passport from the kind of life I expected to the kind of life I wanted.”
But the route to that life was indirect. Patterson attended Acadia University—where he started taking pictures as a hobby—before winning a scholarship to New York City’s Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University. But even then his bent was clear: his master’s thesis was entitled “Still Photography as a Medium of Religious Expression.” His big breakthrough came with a National Film Board project, headed by former NFB executive producer Lorraine Monk, for a lavish photography book that would celebrate Canada’s beauty. Intended to mark the country’s centennial, it was called Canada: A Year of the Land. “When I started out, photography had no value in galleries,” he recalls. “It was regarded simply as social documentary, and it had a very urban focus. Lorraine Monk helped change all that—she recognized that the land had enormous spiritual value for people.” He admits, though, that even now “I hate the nature photography label. An image can become an exciting wash of color, or movement of line, and pretty soon it’s irrelevant that it’s a flower.”
Thirty years after Canada: A Year of the Land, Patterson is still photographing his native country. Although he has crawled across glaciers, hiked in desolate Chilean mountains and camped in African deserts, he says that his own farm [and exquisite gardens] offers just as many photographic sites as anywhere else in the world. “I like to dispel the notion that other places are more exotic than home,” he says, pointing out that photos taken near Shamper’s Bluff figure just as often in ShadowLight as those from faraway locales. He has donated a large portion of his 150-acre property to The Nature Conservancy of Canada as an ecological reserve. “It’s incumbent upon my generation to do things like this,” he says, explaining that he has kept some land for himself and for his aunt, who lives close by.
Next month, Patterson heads to New Zealand for three workshops, and then to South Africa for two. He will return in April to his beloved Shamper’s Bluff— just in time for the spring flowers.
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