C o n s i d e r i n g  H o w  W e  A r e

Reg Good

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Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson, speaking about the nature of photography, says that the camera is actually pointed toward the photographer. The photographer is the subject of the image having chosen the perspective of the lens and the camera position, the edge of the frame, and the moment the shutter is pressed. Life experience,  inner dreams and longings,  study and effort,  mood and state of mind are all part of the choices made for the moment the shutter goes click. Those choices are what the viewer sees when looking at an image.

I was fortunate to have Freeman Patterson as my first teacher by way of his book The Joy of Photography. I had been given my grandfather’s automatic Agfa camera. I loaded slide film and one early morning walking through a ravine on my way to university, I snapped some pictures, bits of nature that had caught my attention. Out of that roll of film I fell in love with four pictures, four that seemed to me so beautiful. Those four hooked me on photography. I was able to follow through on that experience  because in the school library I found Freeman's The Joy of Photography which gave me a frame of reference for exploring this new activity. The library also had the full series of 14 books of the Life Library of Photography series published by Time/Life. Those books gave me the technical  details and creative tools  to acquire the craft.

Freeman Patterson's approach to photography inspired me, made sense to me, to my view of life, to my values. When he was writing about photography, he was speaking to me. In this way I became the subject of my photography.

Many years following, in an exchange of letters, Freeman also gave me a few words I have imprinted above my desk, words that crystallized my life-long learning and experience. We both had gone to theological school and what I guess I picked up in his first book is we shared a way of seeing, though not one you would say is conventionally religious. The words he wrote to me in response to my soul-searching became the marker of my personal life journey: “You are living ‘in God,’ "he wrote. "It cannot be otherwise. Endeavour to relax into this reality, into being part of all that is, and into the incredible mystery that accompanies it. You are the person for whom you have always been waiting.”

When Freeman Patterson was attending Union Theological Seminary in New York, he took a city-sponsored night course in photography. That teacher sparked his joy and commitment to photography. Freeman put this new interest into his dissertation and after graduation continued with a remarkable career as a photographer and a teacher, influencing the lives of thousands and thousands of photographers as he had done with me.

In my case, I finished theological school with ordination in the Anglican church, really the only world I knew as third generation clergy growing up in the 50s and 60s. After three years in parish work, I began a 3-year study leave that became ten years. I began with a year of study in Israel and then a second graduate degree in pastoral counselling psychology. However, over the first semester of graduate school, my focus took a radical turn shifting from a question of how to help from within the counselling chamber to ask how to help through the practice of ritual, in particular how liturgy could be a way for healing. That changed the course of my life, though not evident to me at the time.

The exploration continued then, eventually more experientially and less academically, in part as I’d run out of money and in part the scope of my exploration was highly experimental and the defining hook for my work was eluding me. Through producing my own weekly radio show for CIUT FM on the varieties of religious expression and later freelance documentary work for CBC, along with readings in the Avant Gard theatre, 1898 to the 70s, these with many serendipitous turnings led eventually to the frame for my work.  I found it in on the floor of an Orangerie in the south of France with Enrique Pardo and his Pantheatre.

Returning from 6 months in Europe, excited by the possibilities of this new basis for my exploration, I soon realized the church authorities had little interest in, nor did they understand my journey. And after ten years on this path, I was worn out from living in an unheated rooming house, sleeping 4 hours a night, and for long periods earning minimum wage to support my experimental work. I had been paying my own way since age 14 when my father told he'd no longer pay for me, working long hours while going to school. I had spent my whole life in poverty. I was worn out.  I needed to settle down.

Again, by chance [this journey had many serendipitous moments moving me forward, the work of a companion muse I am convinced] I began teaching in the college system, mostly at Humber College in the English department. It was demanding and precarious contract work for 24 years. I applied to the teaching practice what I had learned from my personal sojourn  to enrich the classroom experience, along the way informed and inspired by the approach of holistic learning. I learned even more than I taught, too, day by day, from my thousands of wonderful students. I don’t feel that I worked a day those 24 years. Every day I taught, I looked forward to walking into the classroom, to being present with my students. Every semester the students and I went on a journey together and found out by the end something more of ourselves.

What has this to do with photography? Freeman said the camera  is aimed at the photographer. Can I know more about myself in the taking of pictures? I don’t know. My orientation is more to theatre and spoken word. Photography is an anomaly to me. But it’s been there from the beginning, been with me in my darkest moments, when holding a camera in my hand was my only solace. Unlike anything else in my life which was about keeping going, striving, rarely taking a holiday in 50 years, the taking of pictures always represented simple, pure pleasure. It’s just something I could do. I see in two dimensions. I can stand at the entrance to a room or in the middle of a woods and feel I know exactly where to go to get the photo I need. And taking the picture, making it my own, gives me incredible joy.

More photography taught me how to live life. I discovered that if I went out with my camera to take a great picture, say to impress classmates in a course, I would get nothing. But if instead I said to myself, I may not get a picture today, then in that attitude, I was open to the world. And the world could then speak to me, without my ego getting in the way, show me itself, show me what to shoot. Canadian painter Emily Carr would go out to the meadows and woods in the summer to paint. She'd find a place, but would wait, not uncommonly for 8 hours or so, wait for the trees and meadows to tell her what to paint.

Over the course of my life, the original query starting my initial study leave turned inside out. I began with the pursuit for making the transcendent present, to understand how liturgy might call on the transcendent to be among us. Over the course of my journey, I came to the inverse, to an exploration of making the present transcendent. Something, for example, photography does - to make the present and the ordinary, transcendent, that is meaningful - as do theatre and the arts generally.

The further perspective about the present, still in exploration, is to find, not myself in the present so much as if the present was another state outside of me that I enter, but more to realize the present in me which I feel then is my immersion within the presence of all things, being alive in the web of all things, of a world bigger and more knowing than my own self alone.

The camera is pointed at myself and the self it sees is the whole of the world, undifferentiated by my ego, an empathy felt for others and for the natural world. To struggle in that journey, I believe, is to be whole, find the harmony and bliss of our mythologies we long for, not as a place we arrive at, a completion at all, but as a journey of our hearts and minds.

To make the present transcendent is to see the sacred in ordinary things, find a soul that is in all things, bound up in a web of life. If I listen to the soul of the world - that is, the soul of the the rocks, and the water and the clouds and the trees, the gesture of a glance, a hand raised, a pensive look- then that world I listen to can teach me its wisdom. It's where we find our soul, sages write. The locus of our soul being not so much in our body, as our body being in soul, th soul of life. That's the spiritual journey I've been on. We each of us see things in our way, are on our own journey. For me,  the simple human gesture of another person, the turn of a head, a gaze, seeing that other, being present to that other is the bit of life that transforms me, connects me to all things, so in that gesture is the whole of our humanity. And it takes away my breath. And I hold life in awe. Photography teaches me that.

By going deep within our Self, and finding there the soul of the world, the sages teach, we come to see the soul of the world in each other. We learn compassion, discover belonging, find deep connection to a life shared among each other. I'm trudging along on that journey, finding it for me, at times, in the click of the shutter.

I look for the soul of the world through my camera lens, in the light casting off the clouds, yes, but also in the events I shoot, in the people, in how they are, how the camera captures them. So that is  photography for me, a roundabout way to talk about it, for there I am, too, finding my soul through a moment, the click of a shutter, with an image that speaks to me, and perhaps to you.

Literary critic John Banville says the work of art is not to hold forth with great pronouncements or try to make people better. The work of art is simply to do the work, trust the world, live in the life of the world, and through the simple work of the artist creator, independent of the artist, all the effort of the artist is perhaps that one other person may awaken to the possibility of life. Such is the simple work of self-expression. So I strive for my photographic work as much as I did for my liturgical work.


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