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Photography and the World of Books – a Talk by Joe Cornish

Michela Griffish reports on a recent talk in Buxton by Joe Cornish

Michéla Griffith

Michéla Griffith

My images combine an early love of drawing and painting with a long-standing passion for photographing the landscape. An important part of my portfolio continues to be about the interaction between water and light in, but I’m also experimenting with movement on land and even my own progress on foot through the landscape. Website

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We have a visitor to Joe’s gallery in North Allerton last year to thank for Joe’s appearance for one of the talks at the annual Buxton Festival. Many of us have a book or two or more by Joe on our shelves and possibly an equal number have dreamed “one day….,” so the chance to hear Joe talk on this subject just “up t’ road” was not to be missed.

Half an hour before the advertised start, there were already brisk sales of Joe’s books in the foyer. Fortunately Joe was on hand to clarify that the box of books under the table were not for sale, but his personal archive - a back-up in case of tech gremlins and an aide-memoire. Laid out, they filled the width of the stage, a reminder that as well as his well-known landscape photography books, Joe has contributed to many travel books too.

On a weekend when the sun returned, Joe managed to entice around 200 people to sit in a darkened room. Perhaps he brought the sun back with him, or maybe as he joked Buxton really is the Verona of the North. As one of the literature events for the festival, there was perhaps a question of whether those present were interested in books, or photography, or both, and this must have made it a little difficult to judge the ‘pitch’ for Joe’s first talk about landscape photography books, rather than landscape photography per se. It was interesting to note that for a genre that is often dominated, at least in the media, by men, there was a balance between men and women in the audience. As Joe waited at the side of the stage to start, I heard a lady behind me ask her companion “Is that him? He doesn’t look old enough to be a photographer.” Joe will doubtless modestly say that the lights were low, but he does look well on it, and exudes enthusiasm for his subject.

For anyone serious about their photography, at least in the days before everything went World Wide Web, books quickly became an important source of knowledge and inspiration. Somewhere between the landscape photography books I bought as a sixteen year old and my reconnection with the subject in the ‘noughties’ a step change had taken place in the quality of photographic books, and Charlie Waite, Joe and David Ward were prominent in this. So Joe’s first slide – to the effect that he had learnt about landscape photography through books – had a particular resonance for me.

Joe spoke of his early influences including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and John Blakemore – important not just for their pictures, but for their way of thinking about photographs. Others included W Eugene Smith, Eliot Porter, Galen Rowell and Peter Dombrovskis. On one occasion he spent a whole week’s wages on an Eliot Porter book, and I think we sometimes overlook the now relatively modest cost of many photography books.

We perhaps also fail to appreciate the groundwork that Joe put in as a photographer’s assistant, commercial and travel photographer. Early on, he noted that the most important thing that he learned was where to stand. Joe touched on key stages in his career as a photographer and as a writer, which he admits was not initially on his radar. He noted that of photographers’ propensity to grumble when they meet up, the topic that they most complain about is authors. I have met others who have said that the ability to write good copy is as important as the ability to make good images.

Joe received the sum of £600, excluding expenses, for his first, largely black and white, photography book which was published in 1986. Then followed a series of travel books, mostly of European destinations; each took many weeks and while finances were very tight, these were important to his development, though Joe expressed some guilt about the associated carbon footprint.

A meeting with Eddie Ephraum’s, then a publishers’ assistant, was clearly fortuitous and led to his first landscape photography book in 2002 - “First Light” – which drew on his portfolio of work. Joe is right to still feel fairly happy about this and it definitely bears re-reading. Joe emphasised the importance of working as part of a creative team, in contrast to an often solitary presence on the field, but noted with some regret that this was the last book of his to be printed using offset reprography and with what now seems like the luxury of an expert scanner and Photoshop operator. Subsequently, the flexibility that computers brought led publishers to make their photographers responsible for image reproduction and colour management which as well as being very time consuming could be particularly challenging when the printer was overseas (“Scotland’s Coast”). This was an experience that Joe was keen not to repeat, and for “Scotland’s Mountains” he undertook colour management training.

Taking the images for “Scotland’s Coast” involved 18,000 miles of travel to do justice to a 4,000 mile coastline. For “Scotland’s Mountains” the images were taken during the course of 2 years with the 5 x 4 camera alone contributing 16kg to pack weight. So we should not underestimate either the time or the physical effort involved in producing the images for these.

Joe touched on the pros and cons of publishers and self-publishing. He then talked about how digital readers had revolutionised the book world, commenting that it was not yet clear if this was a challenge or an opportunity. He hoped for an outcome similar to the reinvigoration that photography gave to painting, by freeing fine arts from their traditions, but admitted some concern. While digital media and self-publishing now allow us all to become publishers, there is a significant difference between this limited print route (and challenge in marketing) in comparison to a typical publisher’s run of between 2,000-4,000 but with the reassurance of their publicity and marketing machine.

Joe ended his talk by expressing a hope that there will not be an end to ‘real’ books, rightly noting that physical and sensory interaction is an important part of the joy of reading.

Overall it was an enjoyable hour, illustrated with images from throughout Joe’s career, including some from his degree show. It was interesting to see that these already hinted at the style for which Joe has become well known, with an emphasis on foreground interest. The talk perhaps only touched on the wealth of knowledge that Joe has built up on the subject which I am sure would make a fascinating workshop specifically for landscape photographers. It was delivered with good humour and considerable enthusiasm for his subject, and offered insights into his way of working. I took away a better understanding of how much work goes into producing a book; that if we wish to follow we should have a very clear idea of who will buy it; and that if we value books, we should keep buying them.

by Michela Griffith



  • dougchinnery

    An interesting insight into the story behind the books and the huge amount of effort involved in creating them – 18,000 miles of travel for one book! Anyone thinking it is a way to make a ‘fast buck’ should be clear this is not the case. They must be a work of love and devotion. I too, would be very sad to see the demise of the printed book. A pdf on an iPad is a beautiful thing but does not compare with the tactile pleasure or sitting with a book and feeling the pages – it is so much more engaging to the senses. Oh, and by the way, Joe, nice Chino’s :)

    • Joe Cornish

      Ahem, errr thanks Doug. Having just got back from a three week trip to India it was a miracle finding a clean pair of trousers for this gig. They are a bit bright I must admit.
      Thanks to Michela for the very nicely-written (and sympathetic!) article. I did find the one hour time slot (of which 15 mins was supposed to be for questions) rather short for such a weighty subject. So sorry to anyone who felt it was light on detail in parts.

      • MichelaG

        Thank you Joe, and I hope I got my facts right. As you say, difficult to cover so much in a short slot, and with little idea of who would be in the audience. It was good to see you, hope you’ll come again.

  • breenster

    Books, I love them, no regular email gets me reading it all the way to the bottom like the way “beyond words” mail does. The sad demise of that shop makes Edinburgh a lot worse off.

    The tactile nature and ownership will never be replaced in my humble opinion. But I do admit to being a bit of a collector.

    Now did I tell you about the “first edition” Elliott Porter & Michael Kenna I got recently, in pristine condition for a grand sum of £45.00

    In, of all places, the Paul Smith shop, heathrow T5

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