Photographer Interview Series: Paul Cooklin
1. When and how did you start practicing photography?
I was given my first camera by my Dad, for my 10th birthday. I didn't really know what I was doing but as my Dad was a keen amateur photographer, I suppose I wanted to follow in his footsteps. Over the years I’ve used all sorts of cameras but I first got 'serious' about photographic art when I returned from Hong Kong in 2000. At the time, I used a small digital camera with Photoshop to combine layers of images, to create mostly abstract or sci-fi digital art and stock illustrations. I was prolific in creating images and was pleased to be signed by the stock image agency, Picture Arts, now owned by Getty Images. I spent the next couple of years continuing to grow my image portfolio but towards the end I began to loose interest in digital manipulation and was looking more and more at traditional photography. I wanted to see if I could create images which stood up on their own without post-processing or tweaking—to see if I could get it right at the point of capture, in-camera. It soon became apparent that my photographic skill-set wasn't good enough to create images which I thought had any impact; my skills at Photoshop and post-processing were stronger than my photographic skills. I realized that I had a lot to learn. This period coincided with being given a Bronica ETRS medium format film camera, which I played with for a while, beginning to experiment with different film emulsions and lenses and to practice traditional photographic skills. I stopped using my digital camera at this point and concentrated on learning the craft of traditional photography.
2. What type of camera do you use and why?
I’ve come to realize over the years that the method by which I create pictures—that is, the process and my choice of tools—is very important to my appreciation of anything I create.
You'll read on various forums that 'the camera doesn't matter, it's the person behind the lens who takes the picture,' which is true to an extent. Any photographer worth their salt should be able to pick up a camera, work out how it sees things and adapt their view to it, or bend it to their own. But the gear we use really does impact on how we make pictures.
I only shoot with film now, mainly because I prefer the look of film to digital (black and white, and colour)—but also because I like the process of making images with film, and the rules and constraints which are either inherent to analogue photography or I’ve imposed upon myself. When I shot digitally I had to spend time 'fixing' the images; making them look better, or at least very different, to the original image, in order for them to stand up. I appreciate that I could have applied the same techniques and rules which I now follow with film to digital, but when I shot digitally I tended to fall back into a certain way of thinking. I found that, when shooting digitally, pressing the shutter was only the first small step in making pictures; it felt like a blank canvas which I could then use to create the final image—which usually ended up being quite far removed from what I had actually shot. I want the image-making process to be at the point of capture—not sometime after, using digital manipulation to fix my errors or to try and replicate what I wanted to convey. It was too easy to make changes and correct my mistakes in post-processing and I didn't feel as if I was progressing photographically. I also spent too much time looking at the LCD screen for reassurance and guidance which sometimes meant I would miss what was going on in front of me. It felt to me like 'digital art' once again—which I had already done for years—and I wanted to move away from that genre. I like the restrictions of the negative, the rules which come with traditional photography.
My current gear includes, in 120, a Hasselblad 500cm, Pentacon 6, Bronica ETRSi and a Holga. My 35mm cameras include a Canon A1, Canon 1V and a few other point-and-shoot cameras like the Olympus XA and Olympus Stylus.
3. How would you define your style? Do you focus on particular subject matters?
I don't focus on any particular subject; if it looks good through my
viewfinder I press the shutter.
4. What or who are your inspirations?
I like some of the old masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andreas Feininger, Bill Brandt, Robert Capa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Richard Avedon and Ansel Adams. Partly because I’m drawn to the era in which they were capturing images, which adds to the nostalgia and look/feel of each print, but also because they were what I consider to be the last of the 'real photographic artists' who used the simplest of tools to create their art.
My son, Rafe, who is now 5, gave me some food for thought. He was given a digital camera for his 4th birthday by my aunt and he loved it. I showed him how to operate the camera, which was very basic—just a shutter button on the top and two peep holes as a viewfinder, that was it. One day he came in to my studio and asked if I could load his images on to my computer screen. I said sure and hooked up his camera and fired up Adobe Lightroom. As the images were importing they were all mostly black. I thought something had gone wrong. The camera didn’t have a lens cap so it couldn't be that. More and more images were appearing as black and so I said to Rafe, “Sorry son, it looks like they didn't come out.” As I looked at him his eyes were wide and he was excited; “No Daddy, this is what my bedroom looks like at night time”, he replied. As I scrolled down the page the majority of the 100 or so images were all black, with a few gradually getting lighter and lighter showing signs of his bedroom as dawn rose. Rafe was thrilled with his photos. This taught me a valuable lesson about perception. Who was I to say the images were no good; to him they were images of his bedroom at night. He had woken up at intervals throughout the night, taking photos until the sun came up. To you or I the black images could have been a black space but perception is really in the eye of the beholder.
5. Do you have a dream subject or location that you would love to shoot?
I'd love to shoot on a film set, maybe a period drama or film. I can imagine this would be a fantastic experience because the costumes, make-up, hair and lighting would be professionally managed by a dedicated team and I could just shoot to my heart’s content.
6. Where can the majority of your work be seen?
My entire current portfolio can be seen on my website, which I update frequently. Some of my collections are housed with fine art publishers and stock agencies; the list can also be found on my website – http://www.paulcooklin.com
7. You say that you are "drawn to creating pictures where light and shade interact." Can you expand on this idea? How does playing with contrasts enhance your various subject matters?
I made that statement a few years ago when I was looking at still life and macro photography. I spent a few days working with some old wood I had bought for my fish tank, which I used in conjunction with some make-do lights to create faces and animals from the light and shadows. I stole the name 'Natures Faces' for the collection from a good friend of mine, Penny Morgan. In black and white photography contrast is very important as we see shades of grey; shadows can give a sense of depth and add a mood to an image.
8. You work in both colour and black and white photography. Do you
prefer working in one over the other?
Generally I prefer to work in black and white and I think my strongest images are black and white. At the moment my darkroom is only set up for black and white printing but I hope to be able to print in colour too. I like to use different film emulsions based on their own colour pallets and/or tonal curves and grain.
9. You say that "capturing the reality of the scene itself is not as important to me as realizing my minds-eye view." Can you explain your photographic process as it relates to this statement?
At the time of writing that a few years ago my approach was different to how it is now. I was experimenting with film and post-processing images digitally—which I no longer do. When I now look through my viewfinder or see something which I think might make an interesting image, I imagine how that might translate on to film and how it will look as a print, but I rule out digital manipulation to make the picture. A few years ago I might have seen a shot which might not look much on its own but with some digital tweaking would work. I now try to find shots which either stand up as a composition in their own right or by using techniques in-camera, at the time of taking the image. The shift is subtle but an important one for me.
However, capturing the reality of what I see is still not important to me. There's a saying 'the camera never lies,' which is wrong. The camera is a perpetual lier. The camera 'sees' in two dimensions and we see in three dimensions. Using different focal length lenses, which each distort/compress the image, offers another perspective on reality.
10. Your work has been published in books, magazines, and online, and it has also been featured in a number of gallery exhibitions. Do you have any advice for emerging photographers about how to get your work noticed?
I spend the majority of my time sitting at my computer, finding new publishers, answering and writing emails, sorting images, using social networking tools and generally donning different hats. I spend the least amount of my time actually taking or making pictures. At this stage I leave any lofty photographic pretensions at the door and just concentrate on promoting and marketing my work. It's a time-consuming business and not always fun but a very necessary part of earning a living from photography. If you want your work to be noticed then you need to do the leg work and be sure about the reasons you're doing it. There are a lot of very talented photographic artists out there all competing to be seen and noticed; their approach to getting their work seen may be different to mine.
Sometimes I get asked to contribute to interviews like this one which is always an honour—and also a good thing, because it makes me question my own work. I think it's important to keep examining your own work regardless of what anyone else thinks and be very self-critical. Equally, allow yourself to feel pleased with images you like as you'll find that you'll spend most of your time saying “that's rubbish!”
To see Paul Cooklin's PrintedArt collection, visit his portfolio.