Photographer in Focus: Steve Cook

Steve Cook

When did you first start taking photographs?

I remember very clearly taking my first photographs using a plastic Diana camera that I’d won in a talent contest at the age of ten. The contest was nothing to do with photography at all, but I was awarded this prize for my exceptional skill at delivering an ear-splitting Tarzan call. From that point on I attempted portraits of my childhood friends using a camera that leaked light and was prone to effects that you’d now pay good money to achieve.

What or who has influenced your work?

The photographers, David Bailey, Guy Bourdin and Harri Peccinotti inspired me throughout the seventies via my love of Vogue and Nova magazine. Man Ray, Bob Carlos Clarke and William Mortensen reinforced my passion for image manipulation that I began to develop in the early eighties, using darkroom and photomontage techniques; though I’ve since achieved far better results using digital technology. The French photojournalist, Marc Riboud has been a source of inspiration during my travels and the MGM portraits of Clarence Sinclair Bull have given me an appreciation of his incredible lighting techniques. I’ve benefitted enormously from the encouragement and lessons I learned whilst assisting Bruce Fleming, from Robert Antill who showed me the ropes during my moonlighting period and also from my friendship and collaborations with the photographer, Alexander Brattell.

Did you always want to be a photographer?

I could never quite decide whether I wanted to be an artist, a designer or a photographer, but I’ve somehow managed all three, and each has informed the other.

Which sitters have you most enjoyed photographing?

I had an enjoyable time photographing Strictly Kev aka DJ Food, alongside his humongous and rather eclectic record collection. To discover that he’d had the floor below his studio reinforced to take the weight of all that vinyl, made me feel much better about my own vintage magazine hoarding tendencies.

Another favourite was actress Sophie Aldred, one of Doctor Who’s companions. Over time I’ve taken more than a thousand photos of Sophie and she was always game for whatever crazy ideas I had for a shoot, in fact our first was on the roof at the BBC. Like a couple of errant teenagers we’d snuck past the NO ENTRY signs, and found ourselves hundreds of feet up in a perfectly photogenic spot at magic hour.

Other favourites have been Eric Van Lustbader, author of the new Jason Bourne novels and Caroline Ridley-Faux, who I met whilst photographing the London nightclub scene in the early eighties.

Do you research a sitter before a shoot?

I tend not to want to know too much about a sitter before I photograph them because I don’t want their achievements or status to affect my own portrayal of them, unless of course it’s a requirement of the commission. I’d rather try to capture their true essence.

Is there an individual you would like to photograph in the future?

There is one person who intrigues me in particular and her name is Madonna. A strange twist of fate placed us in an empty train carriage to Tunbridge Wells a few years ago and we had a pretty deep conversation about life, the universe and everything as the lush, green English countryside rolled past the window. At that point she wasn’t the pop star, but the children’s author and that is how I’d like to photograph her.

Colour or black and white?

That’s a tricky question because it depends on the subject matter, but I have to say that mostly, I find black and white photography more pleasing.

What’s next?

As well as my ongoing passion for photography I have an art project called ‘Signs and Portents’ that I’m working on as a continuation of my Alternity series. These are a fusion of found images and my own analog photographs, manipulated to create alternate narratives that are strangely familiar, yet have a sense of disquiet as histories collide and memories blur. I am also putting together a book based on my 2013 photographic exhibition, ‘Sophie’s World’. In my other role, I’m designing logos for Vertigo and DC Comics and I’ve just contributed to a book about comic book logo design to be published by Random House. I’ll also be continuing as a Lecturer and Practitioner in Residence at The London College of Fashion where I teach design and image manipulation.

Favourite works by the photographer in the National Portrait Gallery's Collection

William Orbit, 1993, I spent a lot of time with William in the late eighties and early nineties, working for his Guerilla record label and as Paranoia Art Inc; we collaborated on the sleeve design for his seminal album, ‘Strange Cargo III’. They were the best of times and I’m glad that I always had a camera with me to record them. (x139967)

'Birth of Deadline' (Brett Ewins; Jamie Hewlett; Steve Dillon), 1988, there’s a rather sad twist to this photograph of Brett, Jamie, and Steve in the Deadline magazine office. Shortly after Robin Bell had made such a fine job of the print and I’d handed it over to the NPG, Brett’s life was cut tragically short at the age of 59 and I never got the chance to tell him. Brett Ewins was one of 2000 AD’s most influential comic book artists alongside Steve Dillon and he helped change the face of British comics for all time. Their ground breaking comics and music magazine, Deadline brought comic book creators and musicians together and paved the way for such entities as Gorillaz. As their photographic contributor, I’m just pleased I was there to document Brett, Steve and Jamie at the birth of Deadline. RIP Brett Ewins. (x199050)

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