INTERVIEW WITH PHOTOGRAPHER PAUL COOKLIN

A master of analog photography; his images capture fleeting moments in time, with the permanence of film, to last a lifetime and beyond.

I originally started as a digital artist creating abstract and conceptual images for a stock agency called Brand X Pictures (now owned by Getty Images) where, over a period of around three years, I created enough images for five disk publications of my work. I really enjoyed the freedom of creating images from scratch and having complete carte blanc to let my creativity flow. I would incorporate digital photos into the many layers I used to create the finished piece. I was quite prolific at the time and found it to be a very creative and cathartic process. Towards the end of my fifth disk, I was given a Bronica ETRS medium format film camera by my dad and began experimenting with all the different types of film emulsions on the market at the time. My dad already owned the Bronica ETRS as he was a keen amateur photographer in his younger days and was no longer using it so he gifted it to me. I remember my first roll of black and white film coming back from the lab poorly composed and under or over-exposed, but I fell in love with the look and feel of real film. I was hooked on the analog process. Not only do I simply prefer the look of film over digital with it’s tonal qualities, it just feels more honest. I’ve come to realise I’m a purist when it comes to taking snaps. I tend to shoot less than I did digitally, partly because there’s a direct cost per frame, not just for the film and developing but also the time it takes in the darkroom to make a print which encourages me to be more discerning when I shoot.

I feel very fortunate to be able to do something for a living which I have a passion for. Although it’s currently not the best paid job I’ve ever had, it’s very rewarding. I used to have contracts with lots of online art publishers but have closed down the ones which either didn’t sell much of my work or who offered poor commission - which I signed at the time out of naeivity. I now only have a few publishers who represent my work - The Saatchi Gallery for my handmade original limited edition silver prints, Not On The High Street sell my reproduction Giclee prints and Farmboy Fine Arts in Canada take care of my images which are used for large commercial contracts such as hotels and corporate buildings. Getty Images still represent my stock images but I’ve not submitted anything new to them for years. I have become increasingly unimpressed with the whole stock image business which has changed over the last ten years, primarily when digital capture was easily available to anyone with a small budget to buy a high-end camera, which in turn saturated the market with images and lowered the price to an untenable working price. I used to be able to earn a living from my five stock image disks alone but now I’m lucky if I get a royalty payment each month.

My very first job as a kid was cleaning cars. I wanted to save up and buy a ZX81 computer which was £36 back in the early 80’s. My dad said he would pay half towards it if I worked for the other half. He was into the whole ‘work ethic’ at an early age. So, at the age of thirteen, I took myself and a bucket with my Dad’s cleaning kit and knocked on doors. I soon managed to get myself a list of cars to clean over the weekends. It didn’t take too long to get the £18 I needed at £1 a car and, within a couple of weeks, I managed to save up enough for my first computer. I think my dad’s work ethic, of paying half towards anything I wanted to buy, was a good incentive to go out and work for what I wanted. I carried on cleaning cars for the whole summer but lost interest when I discovered girls that same summer.

I left school at the age of sixteen to work in London as a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) hairdresser for a prestigious hairdressing academy just off of Oxford Street. It was a real eye-opener into the world of glamour and the London scene. After my training, I travelled to Hong Kong, where I lived for eight years and became the creative director of a Hong Kong hairdressing academy, which I really enjoyed for a while. I worked in IT before deciding to take a leap of faith and become a full-time photographer. Ten years later - I’m still working at it, honing my photographic skills and learning about the business. It’s a lifetime career. There have been a few gratifying moments when I’ve either been asked to feature in a magazine (such as this one), been asked to work on a project or had an exhibition of my work; all of which are small stepping stones which encourage me to continue, which I’m very grateful for. Nearly all the work I do is for art purposes which gives me a lot of freedom. I rarely plan for any project other than to ensure my kit is clean and ready to go and I have enough film in my bag. I prefer it this way. I used to spend time studying maps of locations and gathering information but I always just go with my gut when I’m there anyway. In fact, for purely art purposes I feel spontaneity is best for what I do.

I was asked to go to Cuba by the then-editor of TIME magazine back in 2009, for a gig which I only got by means of a cheeky punt, as they had just purchased one of my images for their publication and were looking for Latino images. I really enjoyed Cuba, especially old Havana. The people have a resourcefulness and resilience about them and recycle everything out of necessity due to the embargo. I found Havana to be very photogenic, with it’s picturesque ruins and decaying facades. Cuba has been well documented and photographed over the years by tourists and photographers alike. I hope my images have added a little something to the mix.

I don’t generally go in for competitions because at the end of the day it’s just someone’s opinion. The only times I have and won, I thought someone else’s image deserved to win. However, competitions can be a good marketing tool which is why I’ve entered a few over the years as it’s all part of the illusion. I entered a few images from Cuba into an international newspapers photo critique once which was interesting. Although I didn’t realise at the time it was open for ‘critique’ by the editor and received an email with their view of my images which were posted below my images online. Some were favourable comments but others made me cross because they had presumed what I was trying to capture and therefore, in their eyes, missed. I try not to listen to critiques, favourable or otherwise, because the only person I’m trying to impress is myself. That’s the whole thing with art photography - it’s very subjective at best. I’m mostly happy with my current direction although would like to spend more time taking and making pictures. Naturally I need people to like and buy my work in order to continue but I’m not into pleasing anyone else.

Being self-employed, in any field, can be stressful and have moments of uncertainty and doubt but I’ve always managed to push through them with the support of my wife. Being self-employed is great but it comes at a price. I spend the least amount of time with a camera, doing what I love. As with any other business it requires accounting, marketing and other duties to be performed in order for the business to succeed. More than 95% of my income derives from art print sales which comprise of handmade original silver gelatin print editions, sold by the Saatchi gallery at premium prices, to signed open edition reproduction Giclee prints sold through various online vendors and fine art publishers. It’s a constant cycle of shooting, processing and pushing out images, removing weaker images, looking for new contracts and cancelling ones which are not working, to keep my business moving. Sometimes I get bored with the whole process as it seems far removed from being creative. When I reach this point, which may be short lived or last days, I take my hands off the wheel and do something else. Anything else, spend more time with my family, watch movies, workout or sometimes just sit quietly and meditate. Anything but think about work. I don’t work 9-5, I prefer working at night. Keeping motivated and pushing on has been one of the hardest things I have had to contend with. I was diagnosed with clinical depression a few years ago, something I now know I’ve had for most of my adult life. In short, it’s simply a lack of serotonin (the chemical which balances our moods and general well-being) which is now taken care of through medication and has made a great difference to my life and how I work.

We currently live in a sleepy village called Occold in Suffolk. It’s very different to my eight years spent in Hong Kong from 1992-2000 but I wouldn’t have it any other way. At the age of 45, I’m done with living in a fast paced city - although it’s nice to visit cities as a tourist! The countryside offers a tranquility which I really enjoy, along with being fortunate to have a good bunch of friends from the village. I’ve become the under-10’s FA coach for my son’s local team which happened out of a lack of anyone else volunteering, rather than choice. It would be ok if I had an actual interest in football but what I lack in skill I make up for in enthusiasm. Having been on courses and passed various checks, I’m now allowed to coach kids’ footie which I consider to be a privilege. I enjoy blasting around on my motorbike when the weather is favorable and even when it’s not - as it’s my main form of transport. It’s a Suzuki Bandit, which is lots of fun. I sometimes can’t believe I’m legally allowed to have this much fun on two wheels - it pulls like a train! Getting away from my desk can be a welcome break which I find can blow away the cobwebs and refresh creativity.

I’ve been asked a few times what advice I would give to new photographers, which I struggle with. After fourteen years of doing this, I’m still not sure what I’m doing. I know how to use my camera and I hope I have an eye for a shot but other than that, I simply don’t know. The business of photography is like any other and being good at it doesn’t always mean you will be successful at it. I’ve often said that I could be selling pencils instead of prints, both of which require the same business acumen in order to succeed. The illusion of photography is partly how you’re perceived in the market and partly skill.

Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of, if not the greatest photographer of the 20th century. He coined the phrase ‘the decisive moment’ which for me is what film photography does well. The camera is able to record a moment in a fraction of a second and can be used to capture something which might ordinarily be missed amongst the many moments before or after. I like the simple rules of the negative which dictate what can or can’t be achieved, unlike my digital days where anything was possible. This might appear restrictive but I find it liberating because there is a set of rules which puts everyone, who shoots film, on the same level playing field. I think the problem with modern day photography is it’s taken away some of the craftsmanship. I would remove the LCD screen from digital cameras. I think a lot of people who shoot digitally are missing the excitement and anticipation of not knowing ‘precisely’ what they’ve shot. Also, not having a LCD screen can help build up your own mental database of ‘what happens when’. When I shot digitally it felt like photography with stabilisers as I could always take a sneak peek and shoot another ten frames if I needed to. Now that I don’t have that option I have had to learn how my camera sees things, how different lighting conditions affect a scene and go back to basics which I find more rewarding when I get it right. Naturally I have folders of rubbish negatives which will never see the light of the enlarger but that’s as it should be. When viewing other peoples work shot digitally I never know what I am looking at. How much of the finished piece was shot using ‘photographic skills’ and how much was done at a later date during editing. Photoshop is not photography. Not to start a flame war - I accept digital capture has its place and some people use it to its best and are very good at post production - but I see the two mediums as very different things. My darkroom skills are quite basic. I can adjust the length of the exposure and contrast but other than that, it all has to be in the negative. I don’t do much, if any, dodging and burning in the darkroom and I get the most satisfaction when I’ve achieved the correct exposure and contrast with the minimal of adjustments.

I have taught myself about film photography and am constantly learning. I think always being in control and planning everything is very over-rated. No, I much prefer just to ‘turn up’ mentally, be present and see what happens. I don’t believe photography should be taught beyond learning how your camera works - ‘what is it’s view’ on things, learning about FStops and shutter speeds and how they interrelate. Other than that, just spend time with your chosen kit and shoot, examine, learn, shoot. It’s very easy to become too concerned about the technical side of things and miss the ‘artistry’. I’ve known people who have gone on photographic courses only to come away with set ideas about things and the right and wrongs of photography only to have to unlearn all that guff, which can be very difficult. Better just to make it up as you go along and you’ll soon learn what you need to know through your own mistakes which will be far more beneficial in the long run. Sure, read the manual if your camera came with one but if you’re a bloke that will probably seem like the last resort; in which case just go out and explore. I’ve owned loads of camera gear over the years from my first Canon 5D digital and 24-105L with an assortment of EOS lenses to a Canon EOS 1V film camera, Bronica ETRS, Hasselblad 500cm, Mamiya 6, Holga, Canon A1 and a collection of point-and-shoot film cameras. I sold all of them to buy into Leica. Some might consider selling a Hasselblad for a Leica madness and in some ways it is. The quality of the Hasselblad lenses and 6x6 negs are superb, without doubt, but the trouble was that all my gear weighed a ton and taking pictures was more of an expedition than a joy. If I’m going to take this lens then I’m going to need this lens too, then I might as well take that one and by the time I’d sorted myself out I had a massive weighty bag of kit, none of which was conducive to surreptitious, spontaneous shooting with a large shining chrome box. I don’t enjoy carrying heavy kit bags around for the type of photography I like to shoot which is why I sold all my Hasselblad gear. What I really enjoy about the Leica M6 is the craftsmanship and engineering of the body, with it’s smooth ‘click’ of the shutter and its overall size versus weight. It’s not light - I know I’m holding a camera. The glass is lovely too and, just like the ‘Hasselblad-look’, Leica also has its own look, too. I’m about to place an order at FFordes Photographic for a Leica R kit to replace my M gear which was stolen and will include a R8 body, 28mm, 35-70 and a 100mm macro lens. This will cover everything I need for the time being. I’m happy just shooting with one focal length, normally wider than long and adjusting my view to match the mounted lens.

I’m open to working with clients on more commercial work, perhaps on location somewhere shooting for hotels or travel magazines. I would love to travel more which at the moment is funded by my income from print sales which in turn gets put back in to travelling where possible. I would be happy to push my current photographic comfort zones and work with another creative on a project, assuming they liked my style of imagery and were looking for something shot with real film with my own style of shooting. I have a few wishlist things I would like to happen before I leave this world, one of which would be being invited by Magnum. I know, it’s a long shot from where I am now, particularly as I’m not a conflict or street photographer as such - I shoot whatever I find interesting at the time and which looks good through my viewfinder. Most photographers I know either have another photography-related job which pays the bills while they pursue their other photographic passions or they have another day job entirely. I define success being something which I have a passion for and able to earn a living from, albeit erratic at time. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to pay my bills from print sales alone.

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