John Cogan ARPS and the Portraits from the North East project: an article for RPS Northern News
By David Trout LRPS
John Cogan ARPS, is the moving force behind Durham Photographic Society’s remarkable series of portrait exhibitions which have been showing at venues across the North East over the past couple of years.
The exhibitions come as a major achievement for John who, in his 60s, has also discovered the magic of portrait photography, earned both LRPS and ARPS status inside a year and met, photographed and interviewed some of contemporary photography’s most influential figures.
But the road to success has been difficult for John, a keen photographer since childhood.
Inspiration was sparked only after early retirement from his teaching career due to stress related illness.
Encouraged by his wife Angela who bought him his first digital camera, a Nikon D40, for his 60th birthday he joined the Royal Photographic Society and Durham Photographic Society.
And it was Angela who encouraged him to go for distinctions.
It gave him a new purpose in life.
The ‘new boy’ at Durham Photographic Society also began his grand photographic opus taking more than a dozen fellow DPS members with him on a unique portrait photography venture.
This involved an ambitious project to photograph and mount a series of exhibitions of influential people in the North East.
The subjects ranged from sport, the arts, business, science and medicine and politics.
It was successful and 100 influential people of the region agreed to be photographed by the team from Durham PS working as Portraits for the North East.
One of the first subjects was the Duchess of Northumberland who offered to stage the first exhibition at Alnwick Castle; this leading to the show being featured at other venues. And it led to another PftNE project – this time surviving World War 11 veterans and then on to an exhibition of traditional craftsmen and women in the region.
The exhibitions have been shown at a variety of venues including Alnwick Castle, Bowes Museum, and the Witham Gallery both in Barnard Castle, Sunderland Art Gallery, St Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle, and Blyth Arts Centre.
Quite an achievement for John and his team of DPS members.
John’s personal photographic career began at the age of nine when he pestered his parents for a camera prior to being taken to an RAF Open Day at Church Fenton in his native Yorkshire.
His first-ever image is of a commendable but slightly fuzzy Meteor night fighter from that day.
John says: “I had several Nikons in the days of film, my favourite being a robust F2; solid brass and able to survive my clambering all over the Lakeland Fells.
When I worked in Suffolk there was an ad hoc group who met every Wednesday evening at Westbourne High School in Ipswich where we could learn from the wise old goats and use their dark room.
“Moving to Sunderland I built a darkroom next to the kitchen but Angela was not happy, as I created a bit of a smell. It was also giving me problems with my chest.”
Moving on to recent times he says: “The arrival of the digital camera coincided with my having to leave teaching for health reasons and my mental health suffered. For a very long time I was unable to leave the house. The Nikon D40 became a life-line.
“Very cannily Angela introduced me to the RPS and hinted that I might be able to go in for a distinction. I rose to the bait. A wee while after becoming a member Angela continued to drip feed the idea of setting myself goals and culminated in a couple of days away at the Bridge of Allen on a Distinctions advisory day.”
John achieved his LRPS and immediately set about work on a successful ARPS panel helped by advice from the Chair of the Contemporary panel over the panel he could develop.
” The submission of my Associate panel at Bath was a turning point. It was there that I met Del Barrett (then Chair of the Documentary and Visual Journalism group). Over a bar meal in the White Bear after the assessment of the panels Del and I talked over the possibility of developing the on-line magazine (Contact). I had already written several pieces for the Durham Photographic Society website which had been published. From the collaboration with Del I managed to start interviewing photographers.”
Over the next few months John interviewed Sefton Samuels FRPS, Allison Baskerville at the opening of her exhibition at London’s Oxo Tower, had dinner with Giles Duley Hon FRPS.
Martin Parr and Chris Steele-Perkins were also interviewees and he also talked with Elliott Erwitt.
“We mainly talked about dogs, whisky and women! Well, it was/is Elliott.”
He also met Stuart Franklin, the Magnum photographer who was in Tianamen Square to record the uprising in 1989. His was the famous photograph of the “Tank Man”
Other notable photographers featured in John’s interviews included Anastasia Taylor-Lind and Venetia Dearden, both of whom had just left the photo agency VII. He went to Prague to interview the National Geographic photographer
Ami Vitale and ended up being filmed for Czech television as he photographed that year’s Czech Press Photography Awards.
” Ami and I are still friends, sharing both a birthday and a love of documentary photography.
“But probably, one of the most significant interviews was with Ian Berry, Hon FRPS, of Magnum. That was in 2013 and since then Ian and I have embarked upon a joint project to tell his story.”
What does John photograph?
He says: “I guess I am a sort of documentary photographer with a dash of Street for good measure. This goes back to those wet, horrid days in Castleford where the coal dust settled on the window ledges and you stayed indoors because the Chemical works had discharged a yellow sulphurous cloud again.”
Portrait photography came to him when the Lindisfarne Gospels came to Durham in 2013. Durham Cathedral authorities and Durham Photographic Society agreed to run their annual exhibition in the Cathedral on a Gospels theme. It led to John photographing local sculptor Fenwick Lawson. “I asked him for a chance to photograph him for the Durham Cathedral exhibition. People seemed to like the result and that was the start.”
For the first few of his subjects John worked alone – his local MP Bridget Phillipson, Andrew Sergeant at the Sage and a couple of others were all photographed.
He then managed to scoop world renowned opera singer Seaham-born Sir Thomas Allen who is also the Chancellor of Durham University.
“This was too big for me alone and I asked fellow DPS member Tony Griffiths to accompany me.”
And that set the pattern for John and fellow DPS members to work as a team on the project. Tony also went with John and DPS member Julie Ferry to photograph the Duchess of Northumberland.
As a technique it worked and offered a chance for other DPS members to come on board. This became important for the development of the Portraits from the North East Collective.
What is the future for John’s photography?
“Will I proceed to a Fellowship panel? Yes, once I get other aspects of my life sorted. “
David Trout LRPS
This article first appeared in the July 2017 edition of the RPS Northern Region magazine, Northern News and is re-produced by kind permission
Northern News July 2017 is here