Back in 1989 I was introduced to a photographer by the name of Freeman Patterson. Not in person but through one of his books. The book was called “Photography and the Art of Seeing” (there’s a new edition of this book available through Amazon). Until then most books I had read on photography delt with the technical aspect of photography. Books that went on about apartures, shutter speeds, focal lengths, ISO, lenses, films and they always had a lot to say about rules. Rules on focus, on composition, on exposure, on focal points, on vanishing points on highlights and low-lights and on and on. Not knowing any better I followed the rules and learned the lingo and produced images that were well exposed with the subject matter in focus and composed according to the “rule of thirds” with just the right DOF having correctly worked out the hyperfocal distance for the lens I was using. And so photography which was and still is, just a hobby for me, felt like a lot of hard work. And the results were hit and miss. The hits were the “pretty” ones but in reality they were all misses because all failed to evoke much of a response beyond the “that’s nice” reaction. Now it’s quite possible that I was simply reading the wrong books or that I simply sucked but it got to the point where photography lost its attraction. I was coming to the conclusion that photography was for professionals and that I should satisfy myself in enjoying their work rather create my own.
Then along came Freeman Patterson with his short book filled with simple words and simple images. There was no mention of cameras or lenses. No formulas or complex theories. No rules. Instead this book had words about seeing and sensing. Words that explored emotions rather than technicalities. Words that encouraged me to break the rules… on purpose. Words like “thinking sideways”, “relaxed attentiveness”, “imagination”, “expression”. Freeman Patterson took me on a journey that explored the ordinary and the mundane. He made me look and taught me to see.
When I was a small child I was forever running through tall grasses and low shrubs, so I became very familiar with glimpses of things. I’ve found that, as an adult, I appreciate not being told the whole story or shown the entire scene, but being allowed room for my imagination to wander. It’s nice to have that part of being a child stay with me.
There are many days now when I use my camera to go poking through underbrush or plants in my garden, letting the leaves and flowers and spiders’ webs and dewdrops appear and disappear almost by magic. In fact, the most exotic places in the entire world seem to be right around my house. From the book “Photography and the Art of Seeing”.
The book went on about visual design and even here the words were about shapes and textures, perspective and light, patterns and rhythm. When the topic turned to colour it was in terms of relationships between colours and emotion, colours and time, even colour in relation to itself. I read about dynamic simpliciy and symbolism, balance and deformation.
And then there was the images. Not the usual pictures of sunsets and flowers and cute animals that I’d seen in other photography books but images that spoke quietly of awareness and sensuality and emotion.
But the lessons were so subtle, at least to me, that it was a decade before I understood them and then almost another decade before I could let it all go. The technical know-how, the rules, the beliefs, all the things that prevented seeing from happening. Including Freeman Patterson’s concepts. I had to put everything aside to be in the moment. “In the moment”… that’s such a corny and meaningless phrase. But that’s how I saw it, that’s how I got to understand presence.
Photography for me is not about following rules or even breaking them. It’s not really about cameras and sensors, it’s not merely about colours and tones, focus and sharpness. It’s about seeing. It’s about being.