Recollections from a Storm Chaser and a Social Documentary Photographer by John Cogan

John Cogan reflects on experiencing two outstanding lectures delivered by two exceptional photographers to Durham Photographic Society March 2014

In Calgary, Alberta (Canada) if you don’t mind having a motorcar with a roof looking as if it has some dread dermatological complaint, you can save money on the original price.  These Hail Sales come after the “dumping” of vast numbers of tennis-ball sized hail stones over a large part of the city.  Roads become clogged with these ice balls, drains overflow and windows can be broken.  Anyone out in an exposed place could well be injured.  Flocks of migrant geese have been felled by the power of this fusillade.  And when the car showrooms have not enough time to make sure their stock is inside that is when the roofs suffer accordingly.

We sat on Thursday 6th March and spent the session marvelling at Roger Coulam’s reminiscences of his time as a storm chaser.  The towering alto-cumulus looking majestic in their complexity and menace, like some ancient Norse god ready to dispense chaos and mayhem, made all the more poignant when juxtaposed with the apocalyptic devastation of prairie townships.  Like many of my fellow DPS members the monochrome images with their Ansel Adams’ sensitivity and technical grandeur took my breath away and I felt envious of them and the opportunity to have captured these moments.  There was a timeless quality to them: the hint of older processes and the lingering smell of chemicals.

What this did not prepare me for was the second half of the evening!

We were left in no doubt about Roger’s technical abilities nor the wisdom of his use of medium format and film.  The post-coffee session took us on a journey of personal discovery that none of us expected.  Granted, John Clarke hinted as much to me during the interval… but!

I came out into the cool of the night feeling both confused and privileged.  Confused in that I felt Roger was a man of considerable self-analysis and intellect, who was driven by some inner demon to find a voice he was happy with regardless of what others thought.  And privileged to have been allowed to witness the inner-workings of a mind bent on deconstructing photography and converting it into something else.  Though he refuted the assertion that he was not a photographer any more but an artist I would argue otherwise.

Time after time recently we have all stood on the threshold of this new photographic age.  We sat through the recent RPS International Print exhibition and wondered whether we could agree with the RPS introducing the Altered Realities category.  We have shared our nascent views on manipulation and how far this could be taken before we slipped away from photography in the commonly accepted sense of the word.  Now, Roger provided us with a different vision.

His images were pure photographs… in fact, many harked back to some of the earliest works in the canon… even to Fox Talbot himself, with the images made in a darkroom directly onto photographic paper.  Fox Talbot would lay his found items, such as leaves, on light sensitive paper.  He called these photogenic drawings

Taking his inspiration from Paul Klee and other artists, Roger has experimented with objects he’s found from dead puffins to butterflies and deciduous leaves.  When people could capture likenesses on light-sensitive paper/glass plates/whatever; some painters sought a new way of expressing themselves.  From these early experimentalist we gained a growing variety of artistic genres from the abstract to the cubist to the Impressionists, to the ultra-realists whose work is so highly detailed that sometimes it is hard to tell apart from a photograph.

But, the message was clear.  Roger was seeking a “voice”, a style and a way of expressing what was inside him.  Is it the process that he looks for some way of working that challenges him to experiment, or is it only the end result?  At this early stage in his journey it is hard to tell but what his evening with us did, if nothing else, was to challenge our expectations; to throw a gauntlet into our faces hoping that we might accept it and “push the envelope” ourselves.  It is how we will come to define photography in the future that is at the heart of what he is trying to achieve.  And it will be a definition that ebbs and flows for many years to come as technology offers us opportunities beyond our wildest dreams.  The photographers of tomorrow may well wonder how we managed to cope with something as crude as a digital camera and Photoshop… and then go out and buy vintage Canon Eos 5D Mark IIIs in antique shops.

But then along came Ian Beesley who gave the Harry Holder Memorial Lecture in March, and his social documentary photography with its recording of dirt and mess and the texture of dying industry, and we were exposed to yet another, and a painful, purpose behind photography: its ability to record the present and keep it safe for the future.

Whether this evening’s encounter would have had quite the same impact further south of the country is debatable but every image we experienced (and I use the word advisedly, rather than “saw”) had resonance.  There can be few of us here, in the North, who has not been touched by the events Ian recorded.  And it was through this active involvement in the demise of these companies that the power of a truth sought and shared, of an event laid bare as if on some post-mortem slab, that invested each image with majesty.  Yes, the gritty underground images of colliers down The Drift were endowed with a timeless quality, a reconnection with past miners and, in the contortions of stripped bodies hunched at the coal-face, with the ancients digging the flints or supplicating to the gods of hunting with ground rock pigments.

Through his work Ian has managed to take himself out of the process.  The images are about the work, about the men and women whose lives will be/are being affected by the changes.  Within the work there are two elements that anchor the processes with the workers: their words are used as are their own photographs.  Each image becomes an archaeological exploration of stratified meanings… the worker who sits in the curve of a large tyre and stares directly into the lens of yet another medium format camera is pleading for our understanding.

Whether we opt for one approach or the other: the social realist who records events or the other who challenges himself to become a better artist… it matters not a jot!  The central issue is one of truth.  Both men, in their various ways, are seeking the same thing: the truth that lies at the heart of any creative process… that which lies beyond the technical.

John Cogan ARPS

Roger Coulam:

Ian Beesley:                      


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