h o t o g r a p h y  &  R e f l e c t i o n

Reg Good

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Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson, speaking about the nature of photography, says that in effect the camera is 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 by the photographer for the moment the shutter goes click. Those choices are what the viewer sees when looking at an image. The viewer sees, in effect, the photographer's mind and soul.

You need then read no further but simply view the images.

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. I also found in the library 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. Many years later, I shared correspondence with him and, consistent with his ideas of subjectivity in the making of images, he was a helpful mentor to matters of living life. In fact, he'd likely say, photography and life are indivisible.

In that exchange of letters, Freeman  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 encapsulating 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 Rectory being the only world I knew as third generation clergy. 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 counselling study, for a number of conspiring reasons, my focus took a radical turn shifting from a question of how to understand healing from within the counselling chamber to ask how to find healing through the practice of ritual. In particular my focus was to explore how liturgy could be done in a way for healing. That changed the course of my life, though not evident to me at the time.

The exploration continued, eventually more experientially and less academically. While practically, I’d run out of money, as well 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 with freelance documentary work for CBC, along with readings in the Avant Gard theatre, 1898 to the 70s, and, yes, many serendipitous turnings, I eventually came 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.

Truth is those long years of discovery took me on a trajectory farther and farther from the conception of faith represented in the institution of church. My bishops didn't grasp what I was doing, and neither did they show any interest. The subtext for my work, beginning with the formal study leave, was to try to fathom how in surveys most people say they believe in God yet most people do not attend religious services. I felt that was a critical question for my vocation as priest. My eventual answers to this curiosity seemingly had no place to develop within the institution. After ten years given to sort out my question and reconcile my learning to a place in the church institution, with no support, I was worn out.

To manage this experimental pursuit, I was living in an unheated rooming house, sleeping 4 hours a night for many years, for long periods earning minimum wage. I have been paying my own way since age 14 when my father told he would no longer pay for me. I learned to work really hard, though unlike some with that prospect I didn't become a successful entrepreneur or brilliant mind.  After ten years I was spent. I needed to settle down.

I have to point out, I wouldn't trade a day of my life, make it any different, for it is a life that  brought me to where I am today. I have been blessed in my sojourn. Very blessed. It is because of my circumstances, as any of us, that I was led to see, to understand, to appreciate the web of this fascinating life we get born into and depart so soon. I always felt safe in my journey, always felt a purpose, a feeling of a personal muse leading me on, or in my Celtic language, a guardian angel step by step with me showing me my truth. No way could I have managed or planned out what I have seen and learned for myself.

I'm sharing all this, as I share my photos and writing, that you, too, in seeing another life, can see your own. It is perspective, I feel - as Freeman says - our perspective on life that we experience as life. We don't actually look out on the world with our eyes, peer through portals at the world out there. Like a camera, our eyes take in data from the outside, wavelengths that strike our eye receptors, and along with other sensors in our body, we record this data and process it into what we think and feel. Colour is not out there in the petals of a flower. Colour is in the brain, created in your brain from certain frequencies received. And we see colour and everything selectively. Some neurologists even suggest that space and time are also structures our brain creates and imposes on data received. Whew!!

We see ourselves living in a world, but that world to great extent is made like a  movie in our head. Our brains process it, but unlike the camera sensor that receives data and processes it, our minds impose patterns on the data, interpret it in our way, shape it to what it is by genetics and conditioning. That's how we can all see things differently, have very individualistic impressions on how things are in life. We see in effect what we want to see.

Let me then pause from the confident telling of this tale, the story of 'about me.' Let me admit to the near certainty that the most unreliable narrator is the teller of one's own story. We've returned  to Freeman's the camera effectively pointing towards ourself. As with the viewing of photographs or other creative works, two people can be looking at the same piece, go to the same play or movie yet have two quite different experiences. Two photographers standing in the same place at the same time with the same subject will take two distinctively different photographs.

Our brains are very good at making everything seem consistent, that our world and you and everyone, my experience of it all and my interpretation of it, has a coordination. We so dislike cognitive dissonance. But all the consistency of experience is seemingly in our heads, what we create. Memory cannot be counted on. How the brain stores and receives data guarantees that. How psychologically, to live with ourselves -we need to justify ourselves to ourselves- conditions that. I have based my introspection on journals I've kept for most of my life, writing down the moment as it occurs rather than relying on recall, yet no doubt favouring self in the writing. Even so, the journal is perspective, as is this writing about it now, years later. So then what is not illusion? nd why bother to write 'about me.'

I guess I would say that fiction is a greater truth than reality. It would seem our brains are much better fiction producers in the way they function than are they photocopiers of reality. People with brain damage who only process with their rational mind, can't make a decision. Our existence and sense of being is rooted elsewhere than the abstraction of our heads. Yet this is where our culture, our education, all of it, is where we moderns inhabit, in our head. We only feel the deep self, that knowing of self the mystics and indigenous and artists point us to -only have that deep felt experience occasionally, at a movie or play or art display or deep conversation, walk in the woods, or tragedy that comes into our life. Only occasionally. Rather than living life that way in a deep appreciation of life. I take pause then to say to myself and to you, that the expounding of our stories, even in our apparent illusions, is how we are. One story begets another. Why do I go on here, writing at length to a modern reader that has no patience for this length of ruminating? We might ask why we do anything?  Well, I console myself, maybe someone, for the sharing of it, looks into the her or himself and feels that self more sensitively. I felt I had to pause to qualify all this writing that should be a little profile of my background and achievements, dear reader, to say about me is but a perspective, as is each of the photographs. A story offered, to awaken perhaps, at least to connect with another sharing a similar perspective.

How might I characterize my sense of my experience of my life, illusion or not?

Things seem to have happened in spite of me, to teach me, I feel; and somehow through it all, I have felt taken care of. There is a thread pulling me along, nothing of my making, but in letting myself be led by dreams and longings and frustrations and disappointments, from one place to the next, I can only feel it all had a sense, as it taught me, guided me along. I came to see a recognition that we are all connected. And to find in that my comfort, my gratitude, find a home for my wandering soul.

When I decided I needed to have some stability, I was fortunate to end up teaching in the college system, mostly at Humber College in the English department. To that work, I applied  my priestly vocation and what I had learned from my personal sojourn; the classroom became my sacred place to work, another place of chancel and sanctuary,  along the way finding that work informed and inspired by the approach of Holistic Education. I gained so much learning from my students, more than I ever taught them. Day by day, I grew to appreciate more this life thanks to my thousands of wonderful students. I don’t feel that I worked a day those 24 years teaching. Every day I taught, I looked forward to walking into the classroom, to being there with my students, we present to each other. Every semester the students and I went on a journey together and found out by the end something more of ourselves, something good because of that being together. I am so grateful for that gift.

And I met Anne at Irish dancing.

What has this to do with photography? What kind of "About' page is this? OK, not what I should be writing in an 'about page' according to the strategies for business marketing, not how to write an 'about page' to get customers for my photography. But it is about self, about who I am -the whole site is, in fact, considering as Freeman held, that the photographer is the subject of her or his own photography.

So what am I doing with my time if not being a successful business person, if not getting noticed for my work. I'm doing the thing I love, the thing given me. I do it in the company of others, in relationship with others, along the way, as we all end up doing, finding our various ways. For my part,  I have this creative work: I take some pictures and write some reflections. And I offer it up.

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 work, live attentively within the embodied life of the world, and by pursuing the simple work of creative self-expression, awaken self and others to the possibility of life.  

Can I know more about myself in the taking of pictures? Can I do my part, make a difference in the world with my photography? I don’t know. Photography has felt an anomaly to me, too expensive for me to indulge. Yet I had to do it. It’s been there from the beginning of my sojourn, been with me in my darkest moments when holding a camera in my hand was my only solace. That's all I need think to do. Do what I do. Same for you, I'd suggest. Learn how to live life. Let the work find its place. What it's about is not up to us.

Even more, photography taught me how to approach my life. I discovered that if I went out with my camera to take a great picture, say to impress classmates in a photography course, I would get nothing, absolutely nothing. But instead, if I said to myself as I went out to take pictures that I may not get a picture today, then in that approach, I came to be open to the world out there, open to it showing itself to me. By letting go of my ego and self-importance, the world could then reach out to me, reveal its hidden self, its truth, 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 patiently before lifting a brush to canvas, wait for the trees and meadows to tell her what to paint.

Over the years, the focus of my study changed. I began with looking at liturgy, the calling upon the divine in liturgy and pastoral work,  conceived in form as making the transcendent present. Over time, my muse led me to see this inverted, turned my focus inside out, instead my work as making the present transcendent. Something, for example, that photography does -as all the arts do- to show the present and the ordinary to be transcendent and extraordinary. The discovery is to find sacredness in all things; find it in a turn of the head, a gesture,  a leaf on the surface of the water,  the shimmer of light on the edge of a bottle, or a broad view across an expansive valley...... in all things, to find a beauty, even for the shadow and pain of life, a beauty to our humanity, to our being human, a sacredness if we but see. But now a third shift in this view is to abandon the idea of transcendence entirely for it suggests a separateness. Now I am trying to understand how life itself is sacred, not separately possessed as transcendence, but sacredness embodied in the connectedness of all things. Individuals but not independent. What transcends is not life, but out perspective that we are independent of Life, some independent consciousness imposing itself on an inert objectified world.

There is no other than this life, this chaotic, uncertain and messy life that we have, and as such being human, all that we have to be, it is sacred. The arts help us to see that sacredness, that beauty; help us to see our own life, even if confounding or empty, yet see every moment, dark or light, as sacred, as redemptive, the present and ordinariness of our lives made sacred to us, simply in our being human. Our redemption. That is the view of the existentialists, such as in the words of Paul Tillich, words that have guided me, that it is enough that we have lived.

As photography has taught me, the sacred present is not so much something inside me, but my being inside it, not the sacred contained in me but my living inside the sacred, being at one with all that is holy in life, seeing it that way, in my brain, finding that perspective to live by.

The camera is pointed at myself and the self it can see is the whole of the world, undifferentiated by my ego, an empathy felt for others and for the natural worlds I am with them, yes an individual but not independent. To feebly struggle as I do everyday in that journey of discovery, I sense, is to become whole; is to be human; is how to find the harmony and bliss conceived in the mythologies we chase after, not as a place we arrive at, a completion at all, but as a passage of our hearts and minds through this life.

That's what I have to say for an 'about me,' an 'about me' as photographer. Photography for me really is my way to fall in love with the simple human gesture of another person, the turn of a head, a gaze; a way to see the other; a way to be present to that other and to the whole of the world, to experience through making images, a bit of life that transforms me. And it takes away my breath. And I hold life in awe; kneel reverently before it. Photography teaches me that.

By pursuing our soul, a soul to be found within the soul of the world, so we come to see -as the sages teach- the soul of the world in each other. We learn compassion, discover belonging, connection to each other. I'm trudging along on that journey inspired by the sages such as Freeman, 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 or sparkling on the water, yes, but also in the photography of the ordinary events I shoot, in the people, in how they are together in their ordinary ways at a marathon, a wedding, a project. Well, that is photography for me, a roundabout way to talk 'about Reg' for sure, not the usual way, but it is me, finding soul in a moment, the click of a shutter, with an image that speaks to me, and perhaps to you.


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