A few weeks ago my sister and I packed up the family cottage for the winter. While she packed linens, flipped mattresses and vacuumed sand from between the floorboards, I reminisced. I took pictures. I hung out in the shed. I rearranged beach glass in the sun porch. At one point, when I was supposed to be washing windows in what was our late Gran’s room, I noticed a book I had never noticed before – Photography & the art of seeing by Freeman Patterson. Inside she had inscribed it in her careful, tiny cursive: Mrs. Cameron, July 30, 1980. She was 73 at the time- an oil painter, a gardener, a reader, not a photographer. But the passages underlined throughout the book tell me she was using photography skills to teach her, as a painter, the difference between looking and seeing. She emphasized this passage:
Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. Good seeing doesn’t ensure good photographs, (and paintings, she added) but good photographic expression is impossible without it.
Freeman Patterson opens the book with the barriers in life that keep us from seeing. The biggest? The pre-occupation with self: Worry. Ego. Bills. Kids. “You cannot relax your mind and body separately – they are too much apart of each other,” writes Patterson. “In order to get the tightness and tenseness out of the body, you have to empty your mind.”
Was this book sighting a coincidence? I had returned from a photography workshop just a week before. My mind was, and still is, swirling with creative juices. And wonder. How did I manage to get the last spot on one of Aran and Nadia’s food and lifestyle photography workshops? In the Basque country no less? Take that sense of disbelief and appreciation, add nervousness, lack of photographic knowledge, jet leg and a general sense of sheer delight at meeting people from all over the world who share an esoteric love, and you have, unfortunately, a pre-occupation with SELF:
‘How do I work this camera? We have to switch it to manual? How can I capture this worn cutting board covered with bits of raw pastry dough when I don’t know how to change the settings? Why are my images black? How can an iphone do this, but I can’t? We’re stopping to take pictures of the lovely people in this small Basque village? I may seem outgoing, but I’m actually shy with strangers. How can I capture life if I’m pre-occupied with me?’
You get the picture. As the week progressed, we all got to know each other. We laughed and cried. We shared what we love, and we shared our challenges. My fellow students became my teachers too. The barriers between self and creativity began to fall.
As for our teachers, we had the priveledge of witnessing two women share what they are passionate about. Their passion was real. Through their voices, their movements, their kindness and their cooking, both Nadia and Aran taught us how to SEE. Nadia’s tone is dark and romantic. Aran’s is bright and fresh.
Together they tell the truth. The kind of truth that is humbling, but doesn’t crush. I can still hear Nadia: ‘Commit to the photo!’ and Aran: ‘Find your light’.
Of course they have preoccupations. They are mothers. They work hard. But when it comes to capturing food and the life that surrounds it, they relax their mind and body. They find their light. They commit.
The last day I came across these tomatoes in the kitchen where we often ate our meals. Nadia had set them aside for lunch. I was supposed to be picking up something I had left behind, but instead, I lingered. The little window above the sink looked so pretty. The light shining through the bougainvillaea was just enough. I put the tomatoes on the window sill, the way my mother always does. I took some photos. My face moved from ‘furrowed brow’, to ‘inquisitive’, to… ‘relaxed’.
Freeman Patterson, is this what it means to ‘encounter your subject matter with your whole being’? If so, wonderful. But back to my fastidious Gran. How did she see, commit, paint AND stay on task? Maybe I’ll get there when I’m 73.