Alex Cowley is an award winning landscape photographer who captures the beauty off the world around him with a camera. Insprired by Sir David Attenborough’s love of wildlife, Alex Cowley, all the way from the UK, now calls Bellingen home. Alex is currently exhibiting at the Bellingen Gallery.
Tell us a bit about your background ...
I was born and raised on the south coast of England until I was in my early twenties. It was then that I moved to Australia. Although bigger towns and cities like Brighton weren’t too far away, my time in the UK was predominantly spent in a more rural setting. Open fields, woodlands, downlands, ancient ruins and of course, the famous Sussex white cliffs were all on the doorstep and were regular stamping grounds for my friends and I as I grew up.
How did you arrive in Bellingen?
When I arrived in Australia in 2001, I settled, like many before and since, in Sydney. Working as a photographer and retoucher for a studio in Double Bay, I became a member of the Australian Institute of Professional Photography (AIPP). I also fell in love, and in 2005 was married. It was my wife at the time, who first introduced me to Bellingen. I had an instant attraction to it. The rural setting, rolling hills and farmland were reminiscent of the sorts of places I had grown up in. A little later, when we decided to start a family of our own, we couldn’t think of a better place to raise a child than Bellingen, and so relocated from the city. That was in 2007 and although no longer married, I’ve been here ever since. It feels so much like home now, that I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
What inspired you to become a photographer?
The desire to record what I saw as the beauty in the world around me, was planted as a seed from an early age. Ever since I can remember I have been fascinated by the natural world and the work of Sir David Attenborough. It was a weekly treat as a child to be allowed to stay up and watch one of his documentaries. I was entranced, not only by the wildlife, but also by the stunning locations. I remember thinking at the time, that whoever had seen and filmed these places must have the best job in the world. I’m still overawed by his natural history films now. A few years ago I was lucky enough to be able to express my gratitude to him in a letter, along with a photograph. Just to somehow say thanks was enough, but to my surprise I received a handwritten response from Sir David himself. It’s now one of my most treasured possessions.
When did you realise that photography was the medium for you?
I think I had my first camera at around the age of eight or nine. It was only a little 110 – film, point and shoot, but from the first shot I has hooked. I bought my first 35 mm SLR in my early teens. It was an East German Praktica MTL 3 and had screw in lenses. It was very basic, very manual and built like a tank. I loved it. With no automatic features to fall back on, I had to learn how to manually set exposure, focus and everything else. I progressed through a couple of those until I could afford to upgrade to a Canon system. I also, with very understanding parents, converted the spare room of the house into a darkroom and learnt to develop and print my own photographs.
Your passion is landscape photography; why do you find this niche so compelling?
The world around us contains so much beauty, but so often it’s fleeting. It might be a ray of light hitting a hillside, the colour of a sunset, or perhaps a gathering storm. Sometimes, within seconds these moments pass, never to be repeated. I have some inner need to try to capture those events, to record them so that others can share in that special, almost secret moment too.
The local area obviously inspires you; do you have certain areas that you return to regularly? Why?
As a landscape photographer it’s impossible not to be inspired by where we live; there is just so much diversity here. I’m a regular visitor to places like Gleniffer, Dorrigo and of course, our plentiful waterfalls. With each visit I see something new. Time of day, light, weather, all of these things can dramatically change the appearance of a scene, and so I don’t think I’ve ever been to a location and just thought, “Right, well that’s that then”. I want to return to see it at dawn or dusk or in the rain, because each time the landscape has a different story to tell.
I hear you have won a couple of awards. What were they?
During my time as a member of the AIPP, I was fortunate enough to receive a number of awards and honours. Undoubtedly the biggest for me and the highlight of my career so far, was being named the Australian Landscape Photographer of the Year in 2005. Later, I was also awarded the NSW Landscape Photographer of the Year and in 2009 was made a Master of Photography by the AIPP in recognition of my work. I’ve also received recognition overseas as a finalist in the International Photography Awards. Locally and very proudly, I have won the Photography & Digital section of the Bellingen Arts Prize as well as receiving two “Highly Commended” certificates, the most recent only a few weeks ago.
Many of your pictures have an ethereal feel to them. Where does your inspiration come from?
I’m not always sure where the inspiration for the look and feel of my photos comes from. I read a lot, especially about history and historical drama. I often think that it’s the scenes that these books conjure in my imagination that influences the images I create. Producing a picture that I am happy with can be a drawn out process. I will frequently spend days looking at a picture, working on it and perhaps reworking it, before I’m satisfied. It’s something that comes from within, and it’s not always there when I want it. There are days when I can stare at a shot and not know how to proceed, while there are others when it all just seems to flow.
There are others that convey isolation and a colder, bleaker interpretation of the world. What is it in a scene that triggers the difference?
I’ve noticed that some of my shots tell a bleaker, darker story. Sometimes this is because that’s what the subject or the conditions in which it was taken suggests. Often for me though, it’s a reflection of my emotions as much as anything else. At the time of my separation, I slipped into depression. I felt very much alone, and the world as far as I was concerned was indeed a cold, bleak place. Looking back, I realise that the pictures I produced at that time were a way of expressing and trying to understand what I was feeling. Thankfully that time has passed and the lighter side is now more to the fore.
Do you teach or run workshops at all?
One of the first friends I made when I arrived in Bellingen was fellow photographer, Gethin Coles. Together we have run a number of photography workshops and for the last three years, he and I have taught a digital darkroom course as part of Camp Creative. Workshops are something that I enjoy, and I hope to hold more in the future. I believe there is a growing interest in the area for photography, and it’s great to meet like-minded people with a passion for it.
I feel it’s also important to help people understand that it all just doesn’t happen at the push of a button. Cameras have come a long way and are more accessible than ever before, but the difference between a good photograph and a great photograph isn’t the camera; it’s the photographer. It’s the same when it comes to processing. Somehow, digital photography and Photoshop don’t seem to be trusted as mediums for creating art, and it’s real shame. There is a lot of skill, time and learning that goes into a well photographed and well edited image, and no amount of filters or auto wizardry can compensate for that.
The recent exhibition you had at Bellingen, was it a success?
My first solo show was great! I’d not seen so much of my work displayed in one place before, and just getting it together was a success of sorts. I had some fantastic responses to the photographs, as well as a surprising interest in a new creative passion of mine.
While photography is and always will be my first love, over recent years I’ve been producing sculpted leather masquerade masks. For me there is something very meditative about mask making, and I really enjoy the physical aspect of the creative process. This exhibition was the first time I’d put them on show alongside my photography, and the response was way beyond my expectations.
You have an exhibition opening soon; when and where can we find it?
The first show was so much fun, that when an opportunity to hold another came along – I snapped it up. The new exhibition is currently running at Bellingen Gallery in Hyde Street, Bellingen and will be on until the end of May.