Freeman Patterson for EDIT magazine, Volume 3

Freeman Patterson for EDIT magazine, Volume 3

Life Through A Lens
by James Mullinger
Photographs: Sean McGrath

Freeman Patterson is an enigma. Unquestionably one of Canada’s most respected and admired photographers, he eschews the public eye in favour of a quiet life on Shampers Bluff, New Brunswick. Aged 80, he still works and teaches extensively and spends time on a stunning and beloved piece of land he has donated to the Nature Conservancy of Canada to ensure its preservation. The Maritime Edit’s Editor-in-Chief James Mullinger spent a day with Patterson at his home to learn about his life and creative process and what inspires him.

At home with Freeman Patterson, Shampers Bluff, NB

The Maritime Edit: Your home is utterly unique. How did this look come together?

Freeman Patterson: I moved back here from Toronto in 1972. When I started building I had no money so all the materials came from what was available. We tore down two or three old barns and I used the wood from those, including the beams. We cut logs from the property and people donated a lot to us. We heard about a desanctified Catholic church in Musquash the day before it was to be demolished and rushed down to rescue the altar railing.

At home with Freeman Patterson, Shampers Bluff, NB

The Maritime Edit: Everything about your home feels like a creative haven and oasis. It looks like it was strategic but it was not. Are you inspired by your surroundings?

Freeman Patterson: Very much so. I feel so present on Shampers Bluff. I also feel this way in the northwest corner of South Africa, where I go every winter and where I taught for 25 years, giving workshops in the flower season. I just keep going back.

The Maritime Edit: These places, both so unique, stimulate you in different ways. What is it about Africa that you fell in love with?

Freeman Patterson: The area I go to is about five hours north of Cape Town and about the size of New Brunswick. It’s called Namaqualand, on the south end of the Namib, the great desert. There I see the bones of the earth whereas here we have vegetation and cloud cover. There is a completely different sense of time in the two places. Here, with the seasons, time is somehow shorter and always changing whereas there, you can go out one day and wonder, Is it two million years ago or two million years in the future? I love that sense of the absolute eternal in the landscape.

The view from Freeman Patterson's home. Shampers Bluff, NB


The Maritime Edit: What inspired you to donate your home and property to the Nature Conservancy of Canada?

Freeman Patterson: I own two pieces of property on Shampers Bluff: the tip, which I purchased, and a 150-acre farm, which I inherited. This is the most beautiful place in the lower Saint John River Valley and one of the most special. It has 276 species of plants growing on it, 17 different ecological zones, a host of migratory birds — plus the ones that are here — and many animals. One hundred acres between my two pieces of property were being cut up for development. I saw the plans and said, “This is just never going to happen!” I have never thought of land as a commodity. I think of land as a trust. I went to the Nature Conservancy of Canada and said, “Look, if you can get that one hundred acres I will donate my two pieces of property in return for the licence to live here for the rest of my life.” It took them ten years but they did it.

At home with Freeman Patterson, Shampers Bluff, NB

The Maritime Edit: It is clear from your work that you have a close connection with nature.

Freeman Patterson: I grew up down the road at the beginning of Long Reach and went to a one-room school. For seven of the eight years, I was the only student in my grade. I didn’t have many human friends, but I had the beaches, the rocks, the fields and the forests. They were my friends and I knew them well. Today when I return home, my first stops are at the places I know here. I have always had this strong feeling of being very much a part of my surroundings.

The Maritime Edit: We know you once studied philosophy. Did this mindset of being one with nature draw you to philosophy before you became interested in photography?

Freeman Patterson: I didn’t make that connection, not at the time anyway. When I went to university I did not go to get trained in one particular thing. I was paying my own way so had to work and get scholarships, which also meant nobody could tell me what to study. Acadia was the perfect bridge for me, small and intimate enough that I didn’t feel overwhelmed. There was superb music, great theatre. I became really involved in both theatre and debating — it was a very fine university. I just liked philosophy and the pursuit of ideas for the sake of them turned me on. The pursuit of ideas opens the world to you. If you train for specific careers you immediately cut yourself off from that line of thinking. Great careers, I’m sure, but the narrowness of having to think a certain way, along certain lines, always makes me feel bad for people who don’t get to experience a broader perspective.

Kolmanskop, an Abandoned Diamond-mining Town in Namibia, 1994

The Maritime Edit: When did you first pick up a camera and understand that you would dedicate your career to photography?

Freeman Patterson: I had a small box camera in grade school but couldn’t afford film. I shot a few rolls, mostly of snowbanks. But when I went to university in my third year, I won a scholarship to go to Yugoslavia for the summer and bought a camera to take with me. Right away, I loved photography. I was seeing a world that was completely different from anything I had ever experienced — and seeing it pretty well. My visual sense had been developed on the farm. I had been weeding a lot of turnips, carrots and beets — and heaving a lot of hay, and looking after and milking cows. The fact I was alone with nature constantly seemed to translate into the development of my visual sense, which has served me well.

Kolmanskop, an Abandoned Diamond-mining Town in Namibia, 1994

The Maritime Edit: What brought you back to New Brunswick in 1973?

Freeman Patterson: I started teaching workshops here in 1973 because I had given numerous instructional programs across Canada and realized that I had a market. Following university though, I taught world religions for three years at Alberta College in Edmonton, where I began submitting my photographs to magazines. After 20 rejections I finally sold one and soon afterward, my work was being featured in national magazines. In 1964 I made as much money selling my images as I had spent making them, so I thought, Okay, this is it. I had a Volkswagen Beetle, two cameras and $500. I knew I could feed myself because of my farm work so I wasn’t worried about my survival. My first actual job as a photographer began in late 1965 with the United Church of Canada. They had a media studio in Toronto and hired me to work in their stills division. At the same time, the National Film Board was getting ready for our centennial. They saw a photograph of mine that had been published in a US magazine and were looking for photographers to be part of their centennial book. They couldn’t locate me so they sent 17 letters to different photo labs throughout Canada with a cover letter that said, “If Freeman Patterson comes into your lab, please give him this letter.” I finally got the letter, with the request to send samples of my work. I sent 50 Canadian landscape photographs and immediately got a letter back asking for more. So I sent another 50 and thought, Oh God — they exhausted my supply! A while later, I received a phone call from them, requesting to purchase 70 of my pictures at $100 each! I had never had $7,000 in my life! I just about died on the spot. It was amazing. They then put me on assignment. I did a lot of photography — the prairies in winter, Manitoba in springtime, New Brunswick in March — and all for their book. So, I was working for the United Church and the National Film Board simultaneously.

The Maritime Edit: With your love of nature and photography, you don’t strike us as someone who was looking for the big break. It would seem that your big break happened when you inherited the land, enabling you to live here.

Freeman Patterson: True. I really wanted to make a living doing what I loved. And I am so lucky because I have been able to do just that. I will probably never retire. I’ll be 80 next week and retiring just isn’t on the menu.

The Maritime Edit: You are clearly enjoying a successful career. Your work has been published all over the world and you have helped other photographers. The fact that you have helped so many aspiring photographers has become a huge part of your legacy.

Sunrise at Kokerboomkloof, Richtersveld National Park, South Africa, 2006 by Freeman Patterson

Freeman Patterson: I am excited about what I am doing and this gets translated through the workshops, which helps those attending them. Most people who come are amateur photographers. A lot of them belong to camera clubs, which tend to be conservative organizations — very good at providing technical instructions, but often quite rule oriented when it comes to visual design and art. The only rule I have in photography is, don’t process your film in mushroom soup. It will never work! It’s about using common sense and good judgment. You learn about the tools available to you and about design and the subconscious will do the rest. Paying attention to how you feel is also very important. Because of all this I am now able to look at subject matter and know I can turn it into something else. I’m transforming the image without losing its integrity. This is me telling my story. For every photographer, I hope they don’t give that gift away. Finding what you love to photograph can be a tremendous gift you can give yourself. If you love photographing people or landscapes — you name it — go for it! Go there. Be there. And be present.

The Maritime Edit: Your book Embracing Creation came out in 2013 to a lot of fanfare, a dinner in your honour and a real celebration. Did your book and the acclaim it received bring about a new fan base for you, a younger one perhaps?

Freeman Patterson: Yes, I think that is true. I have no social media presence. I don’t have Facebook or own a cell phone. I have always thought, Why let this stuff interrupt your day? I spend my time in different ways. While I am often alone, I am never lonely and I read prodigiously.

Edge of Cedar Grove at Sunset. Shampers Bluff, NB, 2016

The Maritime Edit: Social media can hinder people — creatively, functionally and socially. There is a huge element of addiction there.

Freeman Patterson: For sure. It seems like some people’s phones are an extension of their bodies. I can’t help but feel that if they could get their cell phone implanted somehow, they would.

The Maritime Edit: Your work, though, is meant to be seen on paper rather than on a screen. You don’t need social media. It’s not disposable. It’s art. Freeman Patterson: Well, hopefully! And that’s why I love your magazine so much. People devour each page. It’s not disposable. The Maritime Edit: A lot of successful people in New Brunswick are known only here but the opposite is true for you. You seem to be more well known internationally.

Freeman Patterson: That’s true, but I have never spent a lot of time thinking about it. It’s just a reality. We had workshops here for years before anyone local signed up and to this day, only a few people from New Brunswick have participated in them. My teaching partner, André Gallant, and I do four to six workshops a year at the St. Martins Country Inn. We haven’t had anyone from New Brunswick yet this year. We have had someone from South Africa sign up though, which is great. We have taught students from every continent except Antarctica, where nobody lives permanently anyway!

The Maritime Edit: An unfortunate reality of life is that people who live in a place don’t always appreciate it as much as those who visit. You are one of the few people here who completely appreciate it. You know that the East Coast of Canada is as good as it gets.

Freeman Patterson: You’re right. You know, for many people coming to the workshops, St. Martins is paradise. When the workshops wrap up most of them do not want to leave.

Freeman Patterson relaxing in his study, September 2017

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