John Cogan on Interviewing the Greats and other Matters

The Brasserie Blanc is buzzing with lunching Londoners.  There are Ladies who Lunch at several of the tables whilst, at others, waiters scurry around, conjoining tables for a large party who will eventually arrive in dribs and drabs already full of bonhomie, to celebrate some vague event.  Sitting to one side are three people:  two are male, both bearded and elderly, whilst the other is female and blond (our Group Chairperson Dr Barrett).  The older of the two men is eating beef bourguignon. This is Ian Berry of Magnum Photos.  Between mouthfuls he tells of his time in South Africa and the eventful day when he (and Drum’s sub-Editor Humphrey Tyler) witnessed the indiscriminate shooting of Sharpeville civilians by the police.  A few mouthful later and he’s talking about “Morse” and “Lewis” and how strange he found the end of the final episode of “Lewis“… and he’s talking to me!

There’s more talk of cameras and lenses, and how Leica have lost the digital race, and places he’s been to, and the life he leads as if this is a conversation between old friends.  Leonine is his look; steady are his eyes, though he misses little of his surroundings.  He’s self-effacing and somewhat surprised by being the object of so much attention.  He’s been lucky, he says.  It’s not as if he’s had a job, well, it doesn’t feel like he’s ever had a job.  In all his years as a photographer, every day has always been a joy… and he’s telling this to me!

“Cartier-Bresson said to me….” Ian Berry doesn’t have a chance to complete the sentence because I’ve nearly fallen off my chair.  Dr Barrett hastily writes this down as it’ll go on her nightly Blog.  There’s a tingle down my back;  this 78 year old man was chosen by HCB to join Magnum Photos back in 1962.  He’s happy to talk about those he’s known, and worked with…. Salgado (and the prospect of meeting him again when he comes to London to open the Genesis exhibition at the Natural History Museum), Koudelka with an eye for the ladies, Eve Arnold serving up comfort food to one and all, HCB showing him the latest photo even though he had supposedly forsaken the Leica for a pencil and crayons, and the gentle yet redoubtable Jane Bown with her two Olympus OM1s in her shopping bag.  It’s unreal.  I know it’s unreal, a dream I’m having and I’ll wake up soon to the Hetton rain drumming against the window.  But there is no waking up from this!  It’s not a dream!  I really am in this fashionable London restaurant, a Northern lad with another Northern lad (who would have been quite content with a pizza he jokingly tells me) discussing photography, the meaning of life and everything!

I pinch myself while Ian Berry asks me a question about what I do as features editor of the DVJ E-News.  What do I do?  Good question.  I’m not a journalist.  I have no great capacity for asking famous people questions but, as a result of some random kick of the cosmic wheel of fortune, I’ve come to this point in my life… and I’m having a ball!  Someone at Magnum Photos asks me if six months ago I would have thought I would ever be here talking to someone like Ian Berry?  Of course not!  As a kid I attacked The Sunday Times Supplement for pictures to stick up on my wall.  This was the era of the Viet Nam war and I had pictures by Larry Burrows and Don McCullin next to Litchfield’s ballet dancers and Paris Match Algerian French and Algerian Algerians.  Marc Riboud’s Washington anti-war protesters and Angus McBean’s theatre photos vied for wall space.  And here I am touching the hem of heroes.

This is not the first interview I’ve done.  I’ve sat over a couple of coffees with Alison Baskerville discussing being under fire from the Taliban as she recorded the activities of the female British officers going about their hearts and minds business.  I’ve interviewed the elderly Sefton Samuels as his beloved Manchester City thrashed Newcastle, which was probably why he smiled all the way through the interview.  We talked about Rugby League, my home-town’s Castleford Tigers, his photographs of George Best and the famous Jazz musicians he’s known…. Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Count Basie and Duke Ellington (and the other guys in the band).  After Sefton’s wit, natural good humour and gentle generosity it was a shock to then interview Martin Parr.  A very exacting man, precise and definite, and one who, though guarded, was generous with his time.  I’ve sat and interviewed Chris Steele Perkins and swapped Science Fiction stories.  Hopefully, if all goes well, I’ll have more interviews this year: David Hurn (the Magnum stalwart noted for his incisive photographs of the Beatles amongst other assignments); Susan Meiselas of Nicaragua fame; Giles Duley the paraplegic photographer featured recently on Chanel 4, and Ami Vitale who is one of National Geographic’s star photographers.  Did I say I was having a ball?  And I get to write about it all!  It’s almost too good to be true.  As if this isn’t all we have Paul’s eclectic but wonderfully balanced collection of visiting speakers, AND, not to be forgotten… the members of the DPS who are brilliant photographers and characters in their own right.

Next question: how come it’s happening to me?  I have to thank at least two women for that:  my wife, Angela… and Jane Black.  Back in 1994 my system had had enough of the violence and the ghetto-life of the Ford and Pennywell, and my rubber band broke.  Instead of seeing the outcome of a Saturday inter-schools sports event at Silksworth I woke up in Sunderland’s A & E with an ECG monitor strapped to my chest.  That was that.  I had one of those long, dark nights of the soul and it wasn’t until the fifth novel was rejected as being not “blockbuster” enough that Angela carefully and with great skill directed me into writing articles for history magazines.  Ah, the joy of seeing your name in print.  I never earned very much… pennies if the truth be known… but that didn’t matter.  It was having your work valued by others that counted.

Unable to stand the stench of developing fluid any longer and hearing my asthma react badly to the chemicals, Angela presented me with a Nikon D40X for my 60th birthday.  No more chemical smells, no more occupying the downstairs loo.  She smiled, took the bottles of old chemicals to be safely disposed of and continued cooing her encouragement.  “Why not get a few letters after you name,” she said in that tantalising voice of hers.  Waving a magazine open at the advert for the RPS she proceeded to spin her web of womanly wiles and I was hooked.  I joined the RPS.

This is where Jane Black enters the story.  Originally, I was advised to contact Leo Palmer about the images I had lined up for my LRPS submission.  However, the afternoon I rang Leo was the day his mother died so it was obviously not a good time.  I was directed to Jane whose advice after looking at my pictures was not encouraging. She suggested I join a Photographic Society, recommending Durham. She told me it was one of the best in the North of England and was very welcoming.  Such an honest woman that Jane Black, and full of wise words and discerning taste!

And then Eve Arnold died and I felt the need to mark the occasion.  Eve Arnold had been such a powerful influence in my up-to-then appreciation of photography.  I approached Tony Griffiths and offered to write an obituary, which was accepted.  Then came the Jane Bown exhibition at the DLI Museum and I wrote an appreciation for that, too.  I was hooked.  People came up to me at the Thursday evening meetings and talked about what I’d written.  Instead of trying to chivvy me into activity, Angela now had to prick the growing bubble of conceit and make sure I kept my feet on the ground.  That is a fine balance and I admire her for her skill in managing it.  When Angie Ellis told me she had a laugh at my report on standing guard over the Annual Exhibition and talking to the Goff who was decidedly not a Goth, I felt I’d finally found what I should have been doing all my life.

Presenting my panel for the Associateship was fraught with so many pitfalls.  The subject I chose (Acts of Memorialisation) wasn’t your average and I found it directed into the Contemporary category.  I met Dr Barrett for the first time at my Assessment in Bath.  Dr B. is the chairperson of the Documentary and Visual Journalism Group of the RPS.  She is also responsible for publishing the E-News: CANDID.  It was over a celebratory bowl of soup at the Bear pub round the corner from RPS HQ that she interrogated me and I let slip I wrote articles for the DPS.  I heard nothing more until a few weeks later, when I received an email saying she’d read what I’d written and would I like to submit to CANDID?  Would I?  Yes, well, I did. And, as they say, the rest is history.  Between you all (my wife, Jane Black and the DPS) you have created the monster that is now John Cogan!

On a serious note… from the health hell of the past 20 years my joining the DPS and becoming involved with the RPS E-Magazines has been, for me, a resurrection, the beginning of a new life.  I feel that, though the pain persists and there are times when I have little option but to retreat into a shell, my life has been renewed and I now have a whole raft of good friends.  Nothing ever happens in a vacuum… and no “man” is an island unto himself…

And this brings me back to Ian Berry.  For those who don’t know his work I’d recommend you read his “Living Apart“.  It records his time in South Africa from 1959 to the present day.  All the Apartheid years are there… the police searches, the marginalisation of the Africans, the paranoia of the Afrikaans, the riots and the effect of Mandela.  Beautifully realised images made in the classic reportage format.  It is story-telling of an impeccable style;  powerful monochrome pictures, balanced shots with great integrity, all coming together in a complete narrative.  Study any one image and you can tease out all the compositional elements… the dominant central theme, the lead-in lines, the use of thirds, the depth of focus or the shallowness, the “grab-you-by-the-throat” images that stay with you, the shared experiences.

Look, if you must consider only one image, at the group of men waiting by the car, outside the courthouse, as the wind blows the dust from left to right across the frame.  The picture manages to convey the movement of the wind and the resolute patience of the men as they wait out the dust storm in the hope of judicial satisfaction.  The texture of the image with the dryness of the men’s facial skin and the pattern on their blankets… this image HAD to be monochrome.  Colour would have restricted the viewer to seeing garish patterns.

And the other interviews?  Ali Baskerville’s work is on display on her website… the British troops in Afghanistan, Cruft’s dog show, the plight of women (especially widows) in Gaza, the Israeli maternity clinic.  Look at the section on portraits and see her empathy for people in her work.  Whilst covering the Spanish Civil War Robert Capa and Gerda Taro made many similar portraits of the combatants.  Ali follows in a grand and honourable tradition and wielding her Canon Eos D5 III she offers us a paradigm for intimate portraits and the telling detail of minutia.

Chris Steele-Perkins is a photographer everyone at the DPS should know.  His book “Northern Exposures” is a master class in constructing a thematic photo essay and it’s all so close to home: Easington Colliery, Merton, Durham, Weardale and other local places and people.  If there is a theme that runs like a silken thread through the photographs in “Northern Exposures” it’s animals: from the Merton men’s lurchers, to the scatty Springer Spaniels of Raby Castle.

Recently, he has produced a sympathetic and very poignant book on those who have attained their 100th year.  This is strangely part of a cyclical development as his first book was published back in 1979 on Teds.  This came not long after he left Newcastle University where he became the “staff” photographer for the Student Union Newspaper.  From such beginnings to the publication of Teds then to his later work, and now his careful and sympathetic look at the Centenarians.  Based upon such evidence I’d class Chris as a social historian and photographic anthropologist.

If there is a thread that runs through all these photographers it is one that Michael pointed out to Tony G and me, on Thursday night at County Hall, before he showed us how to capture wild life images.  His story was about being on a photo shoot and witnessing this fellow walking up and down the railway platform talking to and encouraging the re-enactors to pose for him.  Michael was able to talk to this fellow-photographer later… one of those friendly, photographer-to-photographer chats.  Nothing out of the ordinary transpired.  If anything it seems that Michael was inveigled into helping our anonymous photographer sort out his new digital camera.  Now, if you needed anyone to help you sort out the bits and pieces of a new Canon it would have to be Michael!  Only at the end did it transpire that this chap had been one of the top Fleet Street photographers but had left to pursue a quieter life.  That’s typical.  From photos of Prime Ministers and Royalty to costumed re-enactors!    You could put Ian or Chris or Ali into a Photo Society setting and they’d chat away, listen and swap hints and tips.  It’s the integrity of these people, their belief in the luck they’ve had, in the chances they’ve been offered and the joy of being able to take photographs… this is what make them so “human”.  Granted, they suffuse their work with a hard-won quality and an ethical underpinning that marks their work.  Challenge them and they’ll tell you it’s all ephemeral and there but for fortune goes any one of us.  Yes, well!  Believe what you like, when push comes to shove it’s the choice of genre and their battle-scars that invests their work with that genuine X-Factor; not even Simon Cowell can add to their gloss.

John Cogan ARPS

May 2013      



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