An award winning artist, Alastair Cook works with lens-based media focusing on large format film and antique photographic practice; he is also an award-winning filmmaker, combining 8mm and 16mm film with digital technology to great effect.
His work is mercurial, rooted in place and the intrinsic connections between people, land and sea. Cook is currently artist in residence for Absent Voices.
The Interactive Design Institute had the opportunity to interview Alastair to discuss his career to date, his influences and future ambitions.
What initially attracted you to the art world?
The art world. That’s a big place. The world is a world of art for me, everything I’ve been interested in is somehow related to a creative activity, my mind will not rest unless it is describing, encountering, investigating.
The Art World, however, is a different thing altogether. Grayson Perry’s recent BBC Reith Lectures went some way to expunging all the myths about that. I make my living in the Art World but live my life in the art world.
How would you describe your work to a complete stranger? Do you like the title ‘photographer’?
I am an artist. I have been an artist since the day I walked into Glasgow School of Art for the first time. I was told this, and have held onto it. I make as many films as I put photographs in gallery walls: when I make a film for someone, I’m of course billed as a filmmaker; when I make photographs, because of the nature of them (physical, plates on glass or tin) I’m often described as an artist. You are what you are doing, creatively speaking.
How does your experience as an architect influence your work?
My memories of an architectural education at Glasgow School of Art are that it was highly competitive. What it also was though was open; we worked across the whole school, especially in the early years, working under tremendously enthusiastic people like Tony Barbour though I spent much of my time life drawing. As the ultimately technical world of architecture closed in after 3rd year, I began to make films on 8mm and slowly my current world opened up. What was really wonderful though was the history, being taught by Gavin Stamp and James Macaulay was an honour, I used to sneak friends into their lectures.
I lectured at Gray’s Art School in Aberdeen recently and was so very pleased to see this multidisciplinary approach alive and well: as many fine artists came to see the talk as photography students. I cannot recommend an art school education highly enough.
Who or what is your greatest inspiration?
May I answer this like the best dinner party guest list of eight? Impossible to state only one: Ian Nairn, Gordon Matta-Clarke, Gérard Rudolf, Frederick Scott Archer, George Mackay Brown, Sylvia Plath, Charles Jacoby Johnston Cook and Jo Bell (to keep the guests entertained while I eat like a king). These people are in my thoughts.
Much of your work has a vintage feel. What attracts you to this style?
Recently, I’ve been working in portraiture using wet plate collodion, a photographic process dating from 1851. It was the primary method of capturing images from the early 1850s until the 1880s. The process must be completed before the plate dries; this brings a certain intensity, offering the ability to produce mercurial and unique images. So it’s not precisely a vintage feel, it’s real, and this often comes as a surprise – there is only one plate, one single image.
What do you seek to capture when taking a portrait of someone?
What drives me in portraiture is the person. Sitting and talking with the other human I am about to capture. The process of wet plate collodion is at once a slow process (by modern standards) and at once urgent. It’s a process with a limited timeframe (it’s a wet process, which is rendered dead if the plate is left long enough to begin to dry) and yet there is no shutter on the camera: I am exposing using my hand and counting in elephants. Is this a photograph? If I got my fancy pants Canon 5D Mark 3 out and snapped you, we may be at a 60th of a second, under lights. Your heart beats, your mind races, but what do you really do in a 60th of a second? With collodion, I use my hand to hold open the lens to expose a plate that I made for, say, five seconds. Within that time you can think. You can hear your heart beat and you can feel – nervous, comfortable, happy. Is this really just a photograph? There is more of you in it…
Do you have a motto?
Like Leith, Persevere.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I’ve three on the go at the moment! I do harbour ambitions of world-wide journalistic motor-biking, akin to Ted Simon.
What advice would you pass on to anyone hoping to get into the business?
There’s an old adage about self-employment – that you work twice as hard for half the money. That is often true but not always. What is always true is that you are doing what you love.
What was your biggest break?
I always feel it’s yet to come!
What are your ambitions for the future?
Well, I have an exhibition called McArthur’s Store on until 20th December, at Dunbar Town House (the work is tintypes of Dunbar fishermen and was made in their store, dating from 1658; it tours to London and Newcastle next year), I’ve four tintypes at Stills Edinburgh, off to see the Queen next week as part of a small evening do then meeting the Royal Festival Hall to talk about film and poetry. After that, Absent Voices, which is an ambitious year long project in Greenock where I am one of eight artists led by Alec Galloway, and I’ll be delivering film, wet plate and photography. So, ambitions for the future? See above, repeat, repeat, repeat.
Image Credits: Alistair Cook Website: http://alastaircook.com Twitter: @alastaircook