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Andrew Cowin was born in High Wycombe in 1954. Andrew studied at the University of Southampton from 1972 to 1977. He obtained a First Class Honours Degree in History and did a one-year Postgraduate Certificate of Education before receiving an M.A. in Medieval Studies. He then taught at a public school in Romsey for six years, during which time he took up black & white photography as a hobby.
Moving to Germany in late 1983, he worked as an English teacher, translator and copy-editor for a time before becoming a freelance journalist. Producing travel pieces for newspapers and magazines like The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph and The European meant a move into colour photography.
The purchase of a Mamiya RB67 medium-format camera in 1991 was followed by his pictures appearing in books and magazines, calendars and as postcards. Over 40 books containing only his pictures have been published in Germany to date. In his commercial work, his specialities include travel, architecture and nature. In the last two years, he has had three solo exhibitions of his art photographs.
ePHOTOzine: At a first glance, many of your photos look like paintings. Is that intentional?
Andrew Cohen: Not really. It might be that the subjects I choose reflect my taste in paintings, but I certainly don't set out to create the photographic equivalent of something by Pollock or Klee or anything like that.
EPZ: Sometimes it's hard to work out what your subject is. I suppose that's the first question everybody asks.
AC: Yes, people are often baffled, and some refuse to believe that they're looking at a straight photograph. One danger is that it can turn into a guessing game, like in those magazines where you see a close-up of a toothbrush and have to work out what it is.
EPZ: So, you're saying that the subject is unimportant.
AC: It should be to the viewer, I think. The only question that matters is, does this picture work for me? If it does, that's fine. If not, no amount of explanation is going to make much difference.
EPZ: But you do seem to have a 'repertoire' of subjects that keep cropping up. Rusting metal, peeling walls, weathered cardboard, and so on.
AC: They all have the common property of being 'rejects'. Things that have been neglected or thrown away. You might compare it to those weeds that people root out of their gardens. When you look closely, their flowers are often no less beautiful - perhaps, in a more subtle way - than those that are cultivated.
EPZ: Which brings us back to the subject again.
AC: Unfortunately, yes. Let me put it this way. As a photographer, you're chained to your subject in a way other visual artists aren't. You must have a subject. And often the subject is the whole reason for the photo. When I take a picture of a rose or a cathedral, people might appreciate that the photo is good, but essentially, they are interested in it because they like flowers or Gothic architecture. For a painter, it's different. For example, it would be odd if someone said they admired CÚzanne's still-lifes because they were fond of apples. In a lot of what we call art, it's not what the artist sees that's important, it's the way of seeing that arouses our interest.
EPZ: Is making your subject unrecognisable a way of getting around this?
AC: I'm basically trying to get away from associations. No-one is going to enjoy looking at one of my pictures because they're a devotee of scrap metal or peeling paint. The unrecognisability of the subject takes this a step further. There are no associations, just the picture standing alone. So, it becomes an object in itself, not just a more-or-less good representation of something else.
EPZ: That means you often work with closely cropped details taken, as it were, 'out of context'.
AC: For me, its ability to isolate things 'out of context' is perhaps the greatest strength of photography. Even at a basic level, the art of taking a good picture is as much knowing what to leave out as what to put in. That's why a good photograph is often more powerful than the subject itself. A great photograph of a building, for example, makes its impact because it cuts out all of the distracting features and clutter that may make spoil our enjoyment when we are actually there looking at it. By choosing his 'frame' with care, the photographer helps the viewer to focus exclusively on the essentials. And what we might call a 'bad' photograph fails precisely because irrelevant details have not been excluded. We've all known that depressing feeling of having to give up on what looked like being a good picture simply because there was no way of getting rid of annoying unwanted elements.
EPZ: It all comes down to composition, doesn't it?
AC: That's the most satisfying and difficult thing. You've found something that really interests you. Maybe it's the form or colours that attracted you in the first place. Now begins what can sometimes be a long and challenging process to get the exact composition, an image that's absolutely 'right' in every respect. Sometimes it takes ages before it 'clicks'. Sometimes, though, you have to accept it just won't work. Another approach I use is to make series that involve looking at a single subject in different ways, the aim being to gain a fuller appreciation of its form instead of a straight 'one-eyed' view.
EPZ: But there's surely a technical aspect, too. For example, the exposure and depth-of-field have to be right.
AC: Of course. But it's the 'seeing' that has to be in the foreground. That's why I leave my medium- and large-format cameras at home when I do this sort of work. Just a good old Pentax K-1000 with a 50-mm lens is all I normally use. In a sense, it's not bad to impose certain limits on yourself. I don't want to spend ages wondering whether to use this filter or that lens. It's visualisation rather than manipulation that I'm after.
EPZ: But you could still 'improve' the image afterwards.
AC: Nothing against Photoshop or darkroom dodging, but it's a question of making certain restrictions to give yourself a framework to work in. If the possibilities are unlimited, there's a risk of striving for effects rather than making images. Similarly, I don't touch or move the objects I photograph. I suppose I could take them home and light them differently or even do things like painting or altering them. But, if I did that, I'd probably be better off taking up painting or sculpting or making collages. For some reason, it pleases me to think that my photographs are of things that really do or did exist.
EPZ: All of your exhibited works to date take their titles from lines or words from T.S. Eliot's poem, The Waste Land.
AC: There are several reasons for this. At a practical level, I don't see much point in calling a picture 'Squiggly Lines' or 'Scratched Poster', while things like 'Composition IV' or 'Untitled' sound a bit precious. Eliot's poem seemed a good idea because most of my work is done in 'Waste Lands'. Also, his work is made up of apparently 'unpoetic' fragments and literary scraps that, in a new context, offer the reader a new way of looking at things. If people said the same about my images, I would have the feeling of being on the right track.
Some of Cowin's commercial work can be seen on the new website www.andrew-cowin-collection.de. His artwork will be added to this site in the coming weeks.
All pictures were taken with a 50mm standard lens on a Pentax K-1000 using Fuji Velvia except Cracked earth - Rusting generator which was on a 24mm lens.