When Sydney went into Covid lockdown, Adrian Cook had his caravan packed with his cameras and photographic equipment ready for a road trip up the Australian coast, looking for “dramatic landscapes and beautiful faces” to capture using wet plate collodion, or tin type, photography, an art form he has been developing for five years.
Covid-19 kept his work confined to his studio where his “dramatic landscapes” took on a new form. He created them, using rocks, leaves and shells he found nearby. Cook shares his studio with videographer and photographer, John Young. As lockdown got tighter and jobs were cancelled, staying motivated and inspired became a mission. That mission led to a six-minute film, the behind-the-scenes story of Cook’s tin type photography and the distinctive images he creates.
“Adrian has set up a dark room and I’d be going in doing prints. I’d come out to our drying area and see these little plates that he’d be testing ideas with,” Young recalled. “It became obvious that he was working on a series to keep himself sane, like me. He had started this landscape series, Imaginary Landscapes, and I immediately thought there’s more of a story behind this than the finished product. There’s so much work behind them that people would not see simply from the images. For me, it was a project to keep the sword sharp and continue to shoot while everything that was booked in was on hold. I just wanted to keep shooting. So I had an idea to put a microphone on him – despite his reluctance – and put a story together.”
This is that story:
There is nothing in Australia like Adrian Cook’s tin type landscape images. Wet plate collodion photography is mostly used for portraits (which Cook does also). For Cook, the process and the images’ distinctiveness are large parts of the allure. His fascination with wet plate collodion photography began because the sameness of digital photography began to bore him.
“A lot of distinctiveness in advertising photography has gone now. Before digital, photographers would use certain cameras, formats, film and processing techniques to create their own look or “style”. And only they would know how to recreate that look, which made it very difficult to copy.
There were no online websites to look at. The only people who got to look at a photographer’s portfolio were the clients. I can remember as a young assistant in London, I’d see a billboard and pretty much know who had shot it by the “style” of the image but I didn’t have a clue how to replicate it, let alone how it was done. These days, everyone uses the same cameras, the same lenses, the same photoshop curve. You see something you find interesting and the next thing you know everybody’s copying it, hoping to get on the same bandwagon. There are photographers out there shooting digitally who still have a very strong style but they tend to have been shooting for a long time.
Art photography has more distinctiveness about it because there’s no client, no boundaries, you’re not doing something that has to be safe just to please the masses, it’s not researched before it’s approved and it’s personal.”
Of course, Cook still uses digital for his commercial work (although, he says, more and more clients are coming to him for the individuality of his tin type images). But the challenge and the unpredictability of wet plate collodion fascinates him. It dominates his personal work. He also hosts tin type workshops and portrait sessions in which he shoots portraits for people who are drawn to its classical beauty and difference.
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Tinkering about… Emily wears dusty pink pleated dress by @zara Styled beautifully by @style_kathy_mckinnon Hair & makeup by the the fabulous @martin_bray Earrings, stylists own. Production by @the__ipc Set design by yours truly. #some_pictures #wetplatedarlings #tintype #wetplate #zarawoman #zara
“What I love about the wet plate collodion process is that it’s very hands-on. It takes a required amount of time, patience and practice to master it. It’s slow and methodical. I still don’t know what’s going to happen when I make a plate – I love that.
“I’m using old cameras and lenses that date back to 1875, which I really enjoy. The lenses are beautiful – all made of brass and glass that was polished by hand. They give a rich patina to my work which new lenses unfortunately just don’t do. There’s also no retouching; everything happens in camera. What you shoot, is what you get. If it’s wrong, you reshoot it. There’s no ‘we’ll fix it in post’.”
Young’s fascination is telling stories. He began taking photos on a point-and-shoot camera his Mum had, using the cheapest film he could get from his meagre income, working a few hours a week waiting tables. After he left school, he got a bank loan, bought a proper camera and began to travel with it documenting the world – until a crash with a car with he was on his bike ended his explorations. While recovering, he studied editing at AFTRS. This was where the thrill of telling stories ignited and his skill in doing so began to grow.
He then landed a job as a videojournalist. “That’s where I learned how to tell stories and piece them together. Now I have come back full circle to my love of photos, hanging around Adrian and delving into his world. I have been doing a lot more of that in recent years, inspired to tell stories in both still and moving images.”
Watching Adrian work, Young became excited about documenting the story of wet plate collodion photography. “There’s nothing more baffling than wet plate photography,” he commented. “Is that how they used to do it? They really must have had incredible patience. I was fascinated by it and thought that I can’t be the only one wondering what goes into creating these images.”
So Young sharpened his video skills and put Adrian’s story together. “As someone who has worked as an editor, I’ve developed an understanding of how to tell the story. Every time I shoot something I know where it’s going to be in the edit. I tend to do my own editing but I’ve also worked with some great editors and learned things that I would not have picked up myself.
“With Adrian’s film, I had complete control of how I told that story visually and in post. As I was shooting, I knew I didn’t want the story to be linear. I didn’t want it to be a how-to video. I wanted to tantalise the imagination of the viewer. I had a gut feeling from the moment lockdown was announced worldwide that creative urges would be at an all-time high. This project is proof that ours were. It’s something we can proudly look back on and be glad we didn’t just binge watch Tiger King and The Last Dance on Netflix like the rest of the world.”
So Imaginary Landscapes is the story of two creatives’ passions. It’s also the story of creativity ignited by restrictions and the importance of heritage. “With collodion, images are beautiful and each is one of a kind. They won’t fade. They’re archival; they last for generations; they won’t get lost in a hard drive,” Cook commented. “And I’m always learning. I can do a plate tomorrow and won’t get the same thing. The chemicals will have changed.”
View Adrian Cook’s portfolio here.
View John Young’s portfolio here.