Finding meaning in creation through a lens

  • October 6, 2013

Sometimes it seems like allCanadian art is really aboutlandscape. From the Group ofSeven’s Fred Varley to DanielTaylor there have been great portraitists.From Jean-Paul Riopelleto Kazuo Nakamura there havebeen great abstract painters.From Joe Fafard to David RubenPiqtouqun Canada has producedgreat sculptors.

Still somehow, every conversationabout Canadian art comesaround to landscape — fromLawren Harris’s abstract Arctic tothe interior landscapes in MaryPratt’s kitchen and bathroompaintings, Canadian artists seemto be constantly trying to put aframe around the horizon.

Photographer FreemanPatterson has added to thattradition over nearly fivedecades of work. Whether in theNamibian desert or his nativeNew Brunswick, Patterson’s lush,complex compositions of colourand form have always been abouta sense of place.

In Embracing Creation Patterson attempts to explain whata sense of place means in his photographs.

Patterson began the seriousstudy of photography under HelenManzer while attending the UnionTheological Seminary at NewYork’s Columbia University. HisMaster of Divinity thesis was titled“Still Photography as a Medium ofReligious Expression.”

In 1962 this would have beenan audacious, if not slightly ridiculous,notion. There were perfectlyrespectable thinkers in the artworld then who dismissed photographyas something much less thanserious art. To suggest peeringthrough a lense and snappingpictures was a way of approachingthe divine was a bit much.

At the other end of Patterson’scareer, in the age of eco-theologyand renewed interest in theologicalcosmology, the idea that a photographercould approach naturesearching for God doesn’t soundcrazy at all. In fact, it might be adownright conservative, respectablenotion.

Patterson is a well-knownadvocate for disciplined, consciousand analytic mastery of photographicskills. In the 1970s and’80s he wrote books of theory andtechnique. But here, Patterson’sprose is concerned with the experienceof photographing.“

As I stood washing dishes atmy kitchen sink, I was looking outthe window at the field beyond,”he writes. “Without realizing it, Istopped washing the dishes andstood transfixed by the intricatetapestry stretching out before me.Then, suddenly, I ‘woke up.’ ”

When Patterson wakes up hegrabs a tripod, a lens, a cameraand heads out the door. There in afield, at the edge of a bog or at thebottom of a sand dune he worksat transforming his waking dreaminto a picture. It happens to him over and over.

Patterson never claims hisreveries are visions or episodesof religious ecstasy. He remainsmatter-of-fact in his descriptionsof how he came to make hispictures. But he is equally clearthat his constant subject, creation,is not just stuff he finds visuallyinteresting. The natural worldhas meaning — meaning that wecannot decode and forget.

In photography Patterson is notseeking to merely depict naturebut to enter into the landscape andbecome part of it. He is aware thathe too belongs to creation, andthat each photograph is a reflectionof the photographer — whathe thinks, feels and cares about.

Nobody will, and nobodyshould, buy Embracing Creationfor Patterson’s explanations ofphotography. The words are abonus. The glory of the book ismore than 100 photographs beautifullyprinted and presented. Thepictures tell their own story.

Patterson urges us to use hisphotographs to rediscover whowe are — creatures of an awesomeGod.

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