New Brunswick

Freeman Patterson shares lessons from his lifelong relationship with nature

Not everyone sees beauty in a carpet of dead leaves, a rotting stump or a bog in the middle of November. But Freeman Patterson does. And there's much to be gained, he says, from really tuning in to your surroundings.

A Q&A with renowned New Brunswick photographer

Photographer Freeman Patterson says he still finds new things to photograph every day near his home on the Kingston Peninsula. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Not everyone sees beauty in a carpet of dead leaves, a rotting stump or a bog in the middle of November. 

But Freeman Patterson does.

And there's much to be gained, he says, from really tuning in to your surroundings.

The 83-year-old is one of Canada's most acclaimed photographers.

He's best known for his representational and abstract images of nature.

Patterson has worked for the National Film Board and produced numerous books. He has taught photography on four continents and still gives several workshops a year, at home and abroad.

His philosophy is that really seeing means using your senses, your intellect and your emotions to encounter the subject matter with your whole being.

Patterson met with Information Morning Saint John host Julia Wright for a walk near his beloved home on the Kingston Peninsula.

Here is part of their conversation, edited for length.

Patterson says he's taken "at least 89,417 images" of Belleisle Bay from his front deck. He says this shot shows lines of current revealed just after sunset by the way the water is reflecting the evening light. (Freeman Patterson)

Q: What is it about Kingston that you love so much?

A: I suppose it's the rootedness. When I grew up, my best friends were the trees and the rocks and all the grasses along the shoreline and things like that. They were just part of me and I was part of them. 

We had a dairy herd and every morning after the cattle had been milked I was responsible to take those cattle through these trails to the pastures way in the back of the property. So, I knew the woods and I knew the fields. So, coming to Shampers Bluff is very much like coming home.

Patterson says he was kind of dancing and so were the birch trees when he took this shot behind his house in October. (Freeman Patterson)

When I was 62, I had not one, but two liver transplants and I survived, which I was given less than a one per cent chance of doing. Now that's a very liberating experience. I kind of woke up and said I've got life that I wasn't counting on. And I realize the world is going on perfectly well without me. So I decided, you know, I'm going to have the childhood I always wanted. And so I've been very busy for the last 20 years having a really happy childhood.

I come out here and people say, 'What in the world are you doing that for?' I mean, most people would walk by this field and think, 'Oh, my God!. There's nothing here.' No camera club in history would bring their members to this field right now. And I love it! I've been shooting more here than I was in the summer when it was full of flowers.

These mixed autumn grasses by the roadside are basically the same hue, but the range of tones, notes Patterson, goes from very light to almost black. (Freeman Patterson)

Q: What do you see when you come out here?

A: Just incredible variety. And I feel just as connected to this place now as I do at any other time of year. I'm looking carefully at how things are integrated. What in that scene attracted me? What about it? Like these dried ferns here — they're just a lot of very light lines now, and yet it's still a community. They're living creatures. I'm a living creature. They're coping with New Brunswick seasons. I cope with New Brunswick seasons. 

We forget, I think, that we live constantly in the midst of all kinds of life and all kinds of death. I mean, look at all of the dying leaves that are around here. So, when we scrub our back to get rid of dead cells in the shower, it's the same thing as leaves. We're shedding all the time as human beings. And so is everything around us. Everything that lives is — only a little bit of it is alive. Everything, everything, everything is connected.

A sprawling rhododendron garden prepares for a winter's rest at Patterson's home at Shampers Bluff. Patterson says he'll miss the green over the long winter because of his strong emotional connection to the plant world. (Julia Wright/CBC)

On my 80th birthday, three years ago, it was a very sunny, mild, autumn day, and I went out on a hike just not far from here. And I was just totally blissed out. I just felt really connected to everything. And, I'm not kidding, at one point I came to and I was just doing this with a birch tree:  I just had my arms around it and I literally was saying, "Thank you, thank you, thank you." That's how I felt.

Q: You ever do drugs?

A: The answer is yes. I would say maybe once every six weeks. I'll think, I have nothing on tomorrow morning and I've got a free evening. I pick music that I really want to hear. It can range anywhere from classical to opera. I will be working away at my computer and 45 minutes or an hour later, after having had a brownie, I'll say, 'OK, I can feel lovely little tingles here. So, I very carefully come downstairs. I'll get sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds, things like that. And then I get a very comfortable chair,  put the music up and then I go somewhere else that is very beautiful. 

The music that I visualize now becomes intensified and for me there is enormous movement and there is incredible order. I see the whole order in the music. To me, these little excursions I do, they're very lovely. And I'm not the least embarrassed about them. And thank God they're finally legal. Of my concerns about my health and well-being that's very near the bottom.

Patterson says he loves to blend the hues when he's taking shots of wild blueberry fields by moving the camera as he presses the shutter. The result, he says, is a document of how he feels, more than of what he sees. And Patterson doesn't just feel colours, he also hears them. He and his sister both have synesthesia. He recalls a heated argument about whether the number five was orange. (Freeman Patterson)

Q: What is at the top of your list when it comes to concerns about your health and well-being or the world in general?

A: One of the things that really bothers me, upsets me tremendously, is really the corruption of the internet, how social media, how the big players — Google, Amazon, Facebook and so on —  employ whole batteries of psychiatrists and psychologists and so on. And they want to get us to make purchases.

One of the things I learned very early in my writing career was that words carry authority. It's called the authority of type. Something is written down, it must be right. And that has been transferred now to things like Facebook. It can be sheer, utter crap. And a lot of players are doing it to manipulate people. People believe it.

Q: Compared to these bright, shiny, addictive products, how can this — where we are right now — compete?

A: For me, it competes effectively. I don't go on Facebook. I do not have a Facebook account. I'm not on Instagram. I'm not on LinkedIn. I have too much to do with my life that is rich and fulfilling. I cannot be bothered.

Late autumn, ash tree against a background of cedars. (Freeman Patterson)

Q: You've said that age 81 and 82 were actually some of the best years of your life.

A: Yeah. When I was young, I thought, my God, after 65, there's nothing to look forward to but rheumatism and rocking chairs. Was I ever wrong. I mean, I couldn't have been more wrong. And frankly, yeah, the years since I turned 80 have been the very best years of my life.

I just love everything. I just feel connected. And I have friendships that matter to me very deeply. A lot of friendships that matter to me really deeply. And I've learned how to manage stress quite well. And I try to live by the mantra that pressure is inevitable, but stress is optional. 

Sunrise on Belleisle Bay on a typical June morning. (Freeman Patterson)

Q: Freeman, all of this is going to continue after you, right? So, what do you hope your legacy is?

A: For people to remember the name Freeman Patterson is not important. And I have to remind myself, it's not at all important. I think a person can maintain good emotional health by not focusing on oneself all the time. But seeing oneself as part of a whole. I mean, we all have an ego and we all want to be loved and we want to be liked. But a little goes a long way. You really can believe in yourself by not just turning to other people, by loving that African violet in your window sill. 

Those likes on Facebook aren't worth a kettle — a crock, OK? They aren't. Because if you make a photograph carefully, if you make a painting, if you create a little garden — even in your window sill — and you like it, it shouldn't matter whether Tom, Dick and Harry and Mary and Sarah like it. You like it!

Everywhere is different, but everything forms an integrated whole, says Patterson. This image was made from his back deck after an early snowfall followed by a little melting. (Freeman Patterson)

Q: You've said that the camera looks both ways. The things that we take pictures of actually reveal quite a bit about who we are. What do your photos say about you?

A: Well, they change as I change. And that's one of the lovely things about working in any medium. If you're shooting for yourself, if you're painting for yourself, if you're doing woodworking for yourself — not for a client, not to please other people — then, in the case of a photograph, the subject matter I choose, and the way I go about photographing it are instructive about me. They're saying something about me.

One of the big problems that photographers have — and I hate to say it this way —  is that they're all the time asking how to do it. How do you do this? Show me this technique. But they don't ask why. That's the more important question. Why am I doing this and not that? Why am I doing this this year, but last year I was doing that?

Q: That seems like a lesson that could apply to more than just photography.

A: Darn right.

If you're having a difficult time seeing the beauty in these cold, grey November days, legendary New Brunswick photographer Freeman Patterson has some advice. Host Julia Wright met up with him near his home on Shampers Bluff. 8:39
Award-winning photographer Freeman Patterson sees aging as a time rich with possibilities -- a chance to do things you didn't do when you were younger. 14:28

With files from Information Morning Saint John

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