Will Working on a Photo Book Make You a Better Photographer?

Freeman Patterson is a storied photographer, teacher, and author. After teaching seminars for groups as large as 4,000 and putting together a number of photography books, he shares some insights into the process he has been intimately close to for years.

Many around the world have come to know Patterson’s warmth, thoughtfulness and generosity through his seminars with large groups of 50 to 4000 across the space of visual arts, music, education, and ecology. His personal work ranges from documentary to impressionistic, and always resonates with themes inherent in the natural world. His images have been published in numerous books, magazines, journals, newspapers and advertisements, and have been exhibited around the world. 

Freeman is the author of numerous books, including Photography for the Joy of It, Photography of Natural Things, Photography and the Art of Seeing, Namaqualand: Garden of the Gods, Portraits of Earth, Photo Impressionism and the Subjective Image, Shadowlight: A Photographer’s Life, and Odysseys: Meditations and Thoughts for a Life’s Journey. He currently lives on an ecological reserve in Shampers Bluff, New Brunswick, Canada.

Below is an excerpt from an in-depth interview published in the November issue of the Elements Magazine.

You’ve written numerous books about photography which an entire generation of photographers have learnt from, and which inspired them to pick up their camera. Is one book special for you?

That’s tough to answer. Of my five instructional books my second, “Photography and the Art of Seeing,” was the most popular, but my first and fourth books, “Photography for the Joy of It” and “Photographing the World Around You,” were close seconds.

In retrospect, the latter should probably have been given the more straightforward title of “Photography and Visual Design,” which is really what it’s all about. I feel this book is the most instructional from the standpoint of craft, but perhaps the first two are more “liberating” for persons who want to “let go” and immerse themselves in the joy of seeing well.

Of the ten other books, my two personal favourites are “Odysseys” (about the four abandoned diamond-mining towns in Namibia) for both the images and the writing and “Embracing Creation,” the coffee-table book of images and essays that accompanied my large 2013-2014 retrospective exhibition at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton.

Does working on a photographic book help you to be a better photographer? How important to you is the curation of images for each book and how do you approach this process?

If it helps, it’s because the extremely tough process of curation and editing causes me to look at my images through other people’s eyes as well as my own. It’s vital to keep in mind that I am not creating the book for me.

I’ve never self-published and have always had experienced editors with superb critical judgment to work with me. I quickly realized that even when my editor was being really tough about pictures or words, they were trying to help me produce a book of better quality. I may have disagreed with them, but I never resented them or argued with them but we had many frank and thoughtful discussions.

Photographers who self-publish rarely have the critical, objective input of an editor and all too often it shows. There are too many images, too much repetition, poor overall design and picture layout.

On the other hand, there are some outstanding exceptions, one of them being my teaching partner since 1996, André Gallant, who has self-published his excellent books.

Could you please give us an insight into your mechanics of seeing? Once you have a scene in front of you that you want to photograph, what are the next steps from a visual perspective?

In my mind, there is no more important word in the medium than “abstract.” All it means is that in every situation I look beneath the labels of the subject matter to ascertain the pure design – the lines and shapes, in particular. Lines (and edges) create shapes, so I quickly determine how many I want to work with, which is rarely more than five lines and six shapes, but usually just a couple of lines and three shapes. (When a scene or situation has many lines and shapes, I tend to see it and compose it as a unit – a single textured shape, a tapestry really.)

The next step is to decide the size and position of each shape in the picture space, which means moving closer, moving back, tilting up, tilting down, etc. I let my feelings guide me; these decisions are seldom rational.

What is one visual exercise which you could share with our readers to help them see and compose stronger photographs?

This is an exercise I’ve given my students and myself for more years than I can remember.

Wherever you’re standing, ask anybody to give you a number between 20 and 50, then ask for a direction – left, right, or straight ahead. If the person says 43 and left, take 43 normal steps to the left, set your tripod down (or draw a little circle about one metre in diameter) and spend as long as it takes to make 30 carefully considered compositions from that spot. Another option is to roll a hula hoop, then stand inside it (wherever it falls) and shoot 30 images from there. When this exercise begins to get painful, you are about four or five images away from a visual breakthrough or expanding your ability to see.

In a nutshell, “The best place in the world to see and make photographs is wherever you happen to be.”

The article is courtesy of ELEMENTS Magazine. ELEMENTS is a monthly magazine dedicated to elegant landscape photography, insightful editorials and fluid, clean design. Inside you will find an exclusive and in-depth articles and imagery by the best landscape photographers in the world such as Bruce Barnbaum, Christopher Burkett, Chuck Kimmerle, Christian Fletcher, Charlie Waite, Rachael Talibart, Erin Babnik and Freeman Patterson, to name a few. Use the PETAPIXEL10 code for a 10% discount off the annual subscription.