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Interview and Portfolio: Ronald Cowie

Where There Is No Boat, I Will Put A Boat -- Ronald Cowie

Ronald Cowie's Leaving Babylon is a portfolio of beautiful Platinum/Palladium images. His enigmatic scenes have a special ambience; they are dreamy and poetic, places of contemplation. Cowie says of this body of work, “I made the images in Leaving Babylon to understand the question of how to live with faith and fear. Leaving Babylon is the visual record of a landscape that exists inside and among us.”

We are pleased to announce an update to Ronald Cowie's Leaving Babylon portfolio on the Photographer's Showcase, which now features a selection of new images. We've taken this opportunity to ask Cowie a few questions about his work, inspiration and craft.

Ulysses -- Ronald Cowie

Sarah Bradley:     How did you get started in photography?

Ronald Cowie:     When I was six years old, my family moved to Janesville, Wisconsin. We lived across the street from Nan Lewis, a photographer. I called her “Mrs. Lewis”. She was the first person I saw with a camera. At the same time, I found the photobook of Alfred Stieglitz’s portraits of Georgia O’Keefe. I didn’t make a connection between what Mrs. Lewis was doing and what I saw in the Stieglitz book, but most journeys start quietly.

My parents gave me a Canon AE-1 for Christmas when I was a freshman in high school. I photographed friends, pets, and classmates. That camera was stolen. I assumed it was a sign that I wasn’t supposed to be a photographer. I was mistaken.

I attended the University of Cincinnati where I eventually became the photo editor of the student run newspaper. I spent most of my time in the darkroom.

After a few stints as a custom color printer at various commercial photo labs, I moved to Boston to attend The New England School Of Photography. That’s where I learned how to think and communicate visually. I discovered an entire family of photographers I never knew existed.

After I graduated, I assisted a few professional photographers on location and in their darkroom. That was my graduate school. I have an MFA from the School Of Making A Living.

Sweet Thud Of Night, 2010 and My Heart And Soul, They Are Free. -- Ronald Cowie

SB:     I'm interested in the origins of the Leaving Babylon series. It seems to be a very intuitive project. How did it develop? Are they scenes that you stumble upon or do the photographs require planning?

RC:     Up until Leaving Babylon, I was making pictures to learn how to make pictures, if that makes sense. I wasn’t making personal work. I made images that demonstrated my mastery of the mechanics of a camera and nuances of platinum printing. I wasn’t very satisfied with the images and was very frustrated at myself. I knew I was the source of my being stuck.

Leaving Babylon came about when I gave myself permission to create images I wanted to see. It developed a process for working that involved a lot of faith. An excellent definition of faith is what happens when a finite being opens themselves to the infinite. So, the process of making these images was very natural but also fraught with real insecurity. My process involves telling the demons of Sloth and Pride to be quiet while I set up the camera.

All of the photographs were made close to where I live. The process of making the images for Leaving Babylon was a process of surrender. I kept my camera and tripod in the back of my car. When a little voice told me to stop and see what’s there, I did it. After a while, I grew to trust that voice. Some of the most powerful images were the result of having no plan or interest in making a picture but doing it because “I said so.”

To answer the question, I planned to stumble upon the images.

Peace Of The Lord -- Ronald Cowie

SB:     Who are your influences -- photographic or otherwise?

RC:     This isn’t a comprehensive list but here are a few and why.

Keith Carter: He demonstrates that making art is a noble and curious thing. He also demonstrated a tremendous work ethic and faith. He was the one who passed on the advice about having a sense of place in one’s work. I am grateful for his friendship and support through the years.

Duane Michals: I saw him speak in Boston when I was a student. He was the first person to ever give voice to the folly of perfectionism I was struggling under. I love the way he tells huge stories with simple elements.

Herman Melville: Moby Dick is one of the most amazing novels ever written. If I make a body of work with as much nuance, depth, zest, and poetry as that novel, I will rest easy in the arms of eternity.

Annie Leibovitz: The only relationship I have with her is through her commercial work and the books she produces. I’m an admirer of the level of craft and dedication she brings to her work. While I could be wrong, I get the impression that she still shows up for work to do a job.

David Zadig: He is a photographer living in Norway. I was his first assistant when we both lived in Boston. He was doing things with a large format camera that directly influenced how I made the images in Leaving Babylon. He also instilled in me a work ethic and dedication to the craft of making images that I will be forever grateful to have received. He taught me how to make great images and be a human being at the same time. The creative risks he took in his career for the pursuit of what really matters has not been lost on me.

Jesus Christ: He wasn’t the first person in history to suggest being nice was a better way to travel but, he sure did put his money where his mouth was. His living example provides a necessary compass for living but the journey is mine to take. I’m learning that I don’t have to have all the answers in order to move forward and grow. Leaving Babylon is a reflection of that mindset.

Bob Cowie (my father): I have not always appreciated the well intended and unsolicited advice but that doesn’t mean I don’t take it on board. He has been right more often than not with regards to my career. The only real issue arises when he gives advice about six to twelve months before I’m ready to hear it. Such is life and I am grateful.

Vanne Cowie (my mother): I get a lot of my creative energy and talent from her. She is always making something wherever she goes. That is a rare and important thing. She taught me how to seek beauty in the world around me.

To Which A Broken Heart Always Replies "Yes" -- Ronald Cowie

SB:     You teach Alternative Processes at the New England School of Photography. How have alternative photographic processes informed your personal work?

RC:     19th century photo processes all require attention to one’s surroundings. I need to be connected and attentive to what the weather is like during a print session.

The processes that engage me are fairly easy to learn but difficult to master. I’m reminded of what goes into making a great pot of tea. It’s more than just adding dried leaves to hot water. Water temperature, type of tea, the amount of time the tea needs to steep, etc. The Japanese have a few opinions on how to make a cup of tea, I’m told.

Teaching alternative processes really is teaching a photographer how to make something by breaking it down into its elemental parts. When printing platinum, I need to be aware of the paper characteristics, the relative humidity, and the temperature and age of the developer. Each one of these parts can be broken down into smaller parts. By focusing on each step in faith, I make better work. My students do too. So, the actual process becomes a touchstone for more engaged observation.

SB:     The prints from the Leaving Babylon series are Platinum/Palladium prints and made using a combination of modern and antique photographic techniques. Can you talk about the process that you've used to create the Leaving Babylon series?

Kingdom Of Obviousness -- Ronald Cowie
RC:     The images in Leaving Babylon were made with a large format view camera. All selective focus/distortion was made in camera. I then had high resolution drum scans made of the negatives so I could interpret them the way I “saw” them using Photoshop. Then I made a new negative that was calibrated to the platinum printing process. I realize that this workflow isn’t that different from what the original masters of the medium were doing with their negatives. I just have a better tool for the job.

With all the inherent variables and expense printing in platinum presents, being able to create a custom made negative saves a lot of heartache. It also insures that the image people see in the online gallery looks like the one that shows up on their doorstep after making a purchase.

For additional information about Ronald Cowie's work or to acquire a photograph, please contact the gallery at (505) 988-5152 x202 or by email.