on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Joe Cornish – Readers Questions

Part One

Tim Parkin

Tim Parkin

Amateur Photographer who plays with big cameras and film when in between digital photographs.

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Just before Christmas we asked our readers for a bunch of questions that we could put to Joe Cornish when he visited next and the response was fantastic. In the end we recorded two hours of audio but to keep installments to a useful length (a lot of people say they listen to them over breakfast or during a commute) we've split it into half hour sections.

So, a big thank you to Joe and everyone who submitted their questions and here's the first section..

and a transcription (apologies for transcription errors - we are getting around to proof reading these soon)

Tim: Hello and welcome to On Landscape. We are here with Joe Cornish with some questions raised by our readers, so ‘Hello Joe’.

Joe: Good morning Tim.

Tim: We put these questions up about a week ago and we have had some great responses and what I will do is I will say who the questions are from and read the question out and we will take it from there.

So, the first question is from Alex Nail and Alex asks ‘I would like to hear an adventure story or two, a tale of bad weather or exhaustion or something along those lines. I have had a few bad trips myself so I’m sure Joe has a tall tale or two and they always make entertaining reading, well when they end well‘.

Joe: Well, thanks very much Alex. If I can say so, that is probably fairly typical coming from Alex, not that I have met him, but he is a photographer who has definitely ‘pushed the boat out’ once or twice I think.

Tim: Likes an adventure.

Joe: Judging from his pictures, so I am kind of slightly embarrassed to answer it by say that, although I have done a huge amount of photography out on the hill over the years, most of my trips are day trips and especially when I climb in the higher mountains they are usually made in reasonable weather because I am fairly safety conscious, being a father of two children and not wishing to die just yet, so I try to stay, more or less within, let’s not call it a ‘comfort zone’ but within a ‘safety zone’.

I think in recent years the closest thing I have had to, well let’s say an interesting experience with, was on Beinn Ime in the Arrochar Alps the day before my 50th birthday and that was; I got caught in a blizzard, fairly high up on a mountain and the forecast was mixed but I hadn’t expected it to be anything like as vicious or as spectacular as it was. Basically, it said sunshine and showers. Well, of course, sunshine and showers down at sea level is sunshine and showers.

Tim: Sounds quite pleasant, doesn’t it.

Joe: Yes it does, yes. It makes for good light and it’s a good photographer’s day. I set off before sunrise; it was in early March so not very short daylight hours, set off well before sunrise and I actually had two goals in mind on the day, one to take a photograph of the Cobbler, which is an interesting shaped mountain in the Southern Highlands, and then to walk past that and then to climb onto the slopes of Beinn Ime. I had a specific view that I was looking to photograph.

Tim: Is this for Scotland’s Mountains?

Joe: It was for Scotland’s Mountains and, as I say, the day before my 50th birthday, and so I had managed to get a couple of pictures made in the early light, which was quite nice, as the clouds were ebbing and flowing, coming and going, and then essentially I had about an hour and a half hike to get up high up into the shoulders of the main mountain past the Cobbler, which I managed to get a five-four picture of.

As I started climbing, it got cloudier and generally more moody looking and I was thinking, ‘well, I need to be careful as I go’, and then the wind started to pick up and by the time I was close to the main shoulder of the mountain, not right on the summit but high on the hill, it really, really got bad and I thought, ‘well, I think I will try and find some shelter here for a little bit’.

Tim: Could you see this coming in or not?

Joe: Yes, and it got dark as well and I managed to find a kind of overhang, literally underneath a very large rock, and there was already a big scoop of snow essentially developed there, where the rock had sheltered the landscape underneath. There was a lot of snow, pretty much snow everywhere, and it started snowing really, really heavily and the wind got up, so I thought ‘I will just hunker down in here for a while and let it blow over’. But, it’s funny how time becomes much, much longer than you think it is probably going to take.

Tim: You don’t know how long it’s going to last.

Joe: No, well you don’t. I mean you have to be optimistic but after an hour I was thinking …… and at that point the spin drift had started to cumulate heavily and I was constantly brushing the snow off my camera bag, off myself and I was actually starting to build up a wall underneath this overhang in order to essentially protect me because, although the air temperature was about freezing, it wasn’t incredibly cold but it was very damp. I had good kit on, but I was getting cold as well.

Tim: You get a lot of turbulent wind behind the rock as well don’t you, which is probably why it was clear of snow.

Joe: That’s right, but you kept getting this settling, a lot of spin drift coming in and the wind was howling. I had, to begin with actually, left my camera bag up on the top when I went to investigate this hollow and after ten minutes I thought ‘this is bad, I better go and get the camera’. I went out and felt a bit like “Scott of the Antarctic” at that point, going out onto the main ridge again which was probably only 20 or 25 metres away and already the snow had banked up around the bag, with this long lead, grabbed my tripod and bag and took them back down.

I had this hour and, as I say, it was the hour that felt like a day. You know, I had my sandwiches and I started to feel like I’m going to benighted out here.

Tim: Could be a birthday treat?

Joe: Yeah, interesting birthday treat that would have been. I didn’t really fancy it I have to say because I didn’t have a sleeping bag with me or anything like that, and it just wasn’t looking great and I was starting to feel, let’s say, concerned. I didn’t panic but I thought the worst case scenario is I’ll back myself right into the hill, bank the snow up around me and essentially hope for the best.

Tim: Yes

Joe: And I was fairly confident; the forecast was fine for the following day. However, it did blow over and, not long after that, I was able to go out and photograph in what was amazing, amazing conditions. I’ve really never experienced anything quite like that, the aftermath of the blizzard was that the sun came out through these big, thick clouds and the steam was rising. Amazing! Because it was quite warm, the sun in March, you know, was starting to have some heat in it and although it was very cold in the lower parts of the valley, there was a lot of mist rising. So wonderful conditions. I wish I could say I made the most of it, but I didn’t really!

Tim: No photograph for the book?

Joe: No, there is one, but it was one of the black and white chapter intros. I quite like but…..? I have to say emotionally I was absolutely shattered, so I walked – I didn’t even get onto the summit of the mountain, I wandered about a bit and thought ‘I think the best thing is to get out of here safely’. I felt grateful and just made the descent through considerably thicker snow than I had come up in.

Tim: Yes

Joe: So, you know, that’s my little anecdote for whatever it is worth. Not that exciting really!

Very briefly, more recently this year, I had a wonderful trek in Ledec that was with the family. So not so much a photographic outing, but there were times when we were many days from any kind of what you might call ‘safe place’, and we were up at four and a half thousand metres and then five and a half thousand metres when we crossed the Fitsaylar Pass.

Although everything went really well, great guides, there was one time when Jan felt particularly poorly with the altitude and I must say I thought, we are five days from anywhere, there was no chance of getting a helicopter out there and I was beginning to worry at that point. Fortunately, she responded really well to Diamoxin and we carried on and we got through the trek fine, but it makes you realise there are times when, you know, it’s not the most safe activity in the world.

Tim: How do you cope, I mean, on this Beinn Ime trip? Do you take anything with you in case you get stuck?

Joe: You know, back then I probably did have my mobile with me, but reality is you are never quite sure whether, if you do get stuck, it is going to be any use to you and often it is in Scotland, partly because when you are high you get better line of sight with the phone signal.

I have never called out Mountain Rescue, never want to, I hope never to have to and greatly admire them; I do some fundraising for them as well. Big fan of what they do, but one doesn’t want to trouble them, it’s kind of embarrassing to think that that would happen.

Tim: Unlike the ladies who got tired walking off Tryfan this year and called the Mountain Rescue down because their feet were sore. Not the right use.

And of course, you had the Lairig Ghru which we have talked about in a previous issue.

Joe: We have, and yes that was a bit more of an epic in many ways, but I probably didn’t have a moment like I had on Beinn Ime where I thought things were going to go badly wrong, other than that having walked, just to briefly fill you in:

This is a walk from a car park at the kind of road head at the Linn of Dee near Braemar and from there you walk into the mountains, into the heart of the Cairngorm. Lairig Ghru is regarded by many as the greatest glen in Scotland because it’s the highest, where the base point of the glen is six hundred meters above sea level and you have got Scotland’s second, third, fourth and, I think, fifth highest mountains all around it. It has a bothie right in the middle of it call the Corrour where I was aiming at.

A seven mile walk is not particularly challenging ordinarily for a fit person, even carrying twenty kilograms or so of kit, but it took me all day to do those seven miles because of the snow conditions.

Tim: Deep, deep snow.

Joe: Deep snow. A lot of crusted snow. So quite a lot of standing and breaking through and you get that “oof”. It’s just ……

Tim: It’s just tiring.

Joe: Yes, I could use more fruity phrases for it, but, yes it is tiring and by the time the sun had set I had just got my first eye line of Corrour and at that point it was still best part of two miles away, so it was the kind of moment thinking ‘am I going to make it before it gets dark?’ cause I knew it was going to be tricky finding my way; there was a bridge crossing, I didn’t want to be doing a river crossing in the dark, so I had to find the bridge. That was a non-negotiable, cause that really would have been a life or death decision. It was literally ice and the river was relatively deep.

Anyway, I didn’t really have much of a means of warming up if I had got really, really wet. But, I found the bridge and made it, and all of that, and then of course I had to do all the same thing in reverse the following day.

Joe: It was very, very cold. It was minus 10, overnight it was colder than that, so you are looking at serious conditions to be in on your own. That’s really what perhaps characterises these two experiences. Most of the time, when I’ve been doing the sort of things Alex is trying to find out about, it is usually with a mate, with a mountaineering friend; where you look out for each other, you look after each other and, of course, it is by far the best way to do it and I wouldn’t really recommend to anybody to go out on their own. I’m sure Alex has probably done it and some brave souls will do, but it’s not really the right thing to do.

Tim: Even in terms of hyperthermia, because it’s a good sanity check to have someone with you.

Joe: Absolutely, absolutely. You need to have very good self-awareness. Hyperthermia is the biggest killer on the hills of our islands, it doesn’t have to be very cold for you to get Hyperthermia and it’s much more about managing your comfort. You actually owe it to yourself to understand how your body works and what is going on. Early stage hyperthermia is easy to recognise, that’s the time you really, really have to do something about it.

Tim: Because you merge into the irrational very quickly, don’t you? Make bad decisions.

Joe: Relatively speaking, once time goes by and you are not getting warm, then things can go from difficult to bad very quickly and from bad to worse, so yeah.

Tim: Worth a look at the article, that one there.

Our next question is from David Bickerdike, he says ‘I would like to ask Joe please, if he was starting out in landscape photography now, in these days of digital cameras where everyone is a photographer, would he have found it much harder and also whether professional landscape photography is long-term sustainable, given the above?’ And, he finishes, ‘what other ways of making money are there?’

Joe: Well, it’s an insightful question and, I think, in reflection there are a few questions in there; one is, is it harder?

I think it probably is, but I think it’s also important to remember it has always been hard and, in many ways, to make a living as a Landscape Photographer has always been very, very difficult and I’ve only ever made a living that way through Stock. And there was a period that I was doing sufficiently well from Stock to be able to say “yes, I make a living as a Landscape Photograph”, but it wasn’t a very long period. It really wasn’t.

Also, was that pure landscape? No, it wasn’t. It was largely travel, what you might call generic travel photography, some of which was landscape photography but not what we might typically characterise as creative or perhaps artistic landscape photography.

So, to an extent, to answer David’s question, I don’t think it’s that much different than it has ever been.

Is it long-term sustainable? I think it is, if you remember that landscape photography itself probably never has been, and isn’t likely to be, in itself a complete source of income (unless you are one of a very small handful of people who, if we think of say Michael Kenner, who most people will know of, and some American photographers who have high reputations and gallery representation and they can make a living from print). But, even they don’t necessarily make a fortune. They might seem like very expensive prints, but they aren’t selling them in the quantities that will make them into a multi-millionaire or anything like that.

Tim: And, in America, there is a lot bigger market for photography and prints, in particular, because of size of the market and the size of people’s houses.

Joe: Exactly, many people will know of Peter Lik, for example, who is a successful Landscape Photographer in the States with a number of galleries. He’s a bit of a recent addition to the gallery scene there; I think that there are other photographers who have perhaps, amongst the photographic community, a higher reputation. I think that Michael Fatali, for example, and I’m trying to remember who the natural history photographer based in Colorado is? There are a number of them but…….

Tim: Bradley Love Junior is kind of Californian.

Joe: It’s not who I thinking of but, yes …. And Jim Brandenburg I’m sure has a gallery presentation.

Tim: I think he has just opened a gallery next to Peter Lik’s actually. Is it Jim Brandenburg? No, I don’t think it is but….yes.

Joe: The point is, we can think of named photographers. In the UK, it’s really not a business model I am aware of. You know, I have a gallery but the gallery mainly is, it is important to emphasis and maybe this will come up later, exists as an independent business. It’s not really mine in that sense and for it to prosper as a business, as to focus on its priorities and not on mine. But, that’s another story.

In terms of David’s second part of his questions, he actually goes on to say, what are the other ways of making money? Well, that is how I make a living as a photographer, it’s not just by my photography but by doing workshops, by writing some TV presentation work, although you have to say that that doesn’t pay very much at all, and some mentoring and consultancy work. It is a little bit, haphazard and it’s very much a ‘little bit of this and a little bit of that’.

Tim: Would you say that, I mean, having been in the Stock photography market and having seen people like Colin Prior who did exceptionally well, obviously you having come from that and settled off and had to change, do you think that is a continuous thing? Is it a given that things will change, so anything you find that works as a business idea now or a business process will only be temporary probably and something will change in the future

Joe: Yes, I think that’s a good way of looking at it because you might think there are hardy perennials.

I certainly think when my friends and I started working on the card business about twelve/thirteen years ago we probably thought there would always be a market for greetings cards. Well, yes there is, but it is definitely a declining one and I don’t think, and we can’t guarantee, it will go on forever. So, there have been card de visites since 1860, so there clearly is a great past to it and there were postcards, and greeting cards in a way came later.

So, Colin does calendars. Colin is one of the biggest selling calendar businesses in the country and he has been hugely successful with that, and great credit to him. It is very, very difficult, as a kind of ‘celebrity photographer’ if you think of Colin in that way, for him to continue on that model. He will have to reinvent. I believe everybody will.

If calendars continue, as sure most of us hope they will, it will still change. Eventually perhaps, it will change completely, we are all perhaps a bit, wondering in this world of screens and tablet, you know, and smartphones how sustainable are paper products? I suspect the market for paper products will narrow, I don’t think it will disappear but it will narrow and it will change and, yes, we will have to adapt to that.

Tim: The next questions we have is from, I believe it is, S A Murray. ‘Does Joe feel his best work is made closer to home or in less familiar locations and why?’

Joe: Oh. This is a lovely question, because it is one of those where you can easily contradict yourself in the process of answering it. I expect that is going to happen to me.

I think if you asked me this question five years ago, I would have said, for sure, close to home because part of me feels that is the right thing to say and yet …. Is it really true?

I think that in a very simple way, when you work close to home, you get to know the area really well and so you can develop a kind of language of compositional language and also then you can start planning and plotting ‘well how might this idea work really well in terms of lighting and in terms of the seasonal side of if?’ So that becomes, and that became for me, a kind of methodology and it still remains a working practice. That’s how I essentially keep myself in trim, photographically speaking, is by remaining on terms, on good terms, with my local area, walking the pathways and is also a way of keeping fit and testing myself photographically.

My local area is a lovely area. It’s actually not necessarily, strangely enough, the sort of area I would necessarily look for in the realms of my imagination. You know, I’m a mountain and coast person probably above all things and the moors are almost more of a challenge to me than necessarily the first place I would look to in the realm of my imagination. So …. Is my best work done there? I would say not necessarily, but certainly the work that means a lot to me because of the personal connections and the memories and all of those things.

I think though that the question might or perhaps a better way of answering it is, to think about the difference between familiarity and novelty and how they influence you artistically. The great thing about novelty is that it can be quite liberating too, so for example, this year I have had two amazing trips; one to Ledec and another to South Africa.

The Ledec trip was primarily a personal journey with friends and family, but the South Africa trip was most definitely a photographic trip and I was in a completely new place; without a lot of expectation, with not a lot of prior knowledge of the place at all and I almost deliberately did not research it, so when I went there is was very instinctive, very much more … whatever happens, happens and I’ll respond to what I see and respond to my feelings about it at the time and photograph both in a way that is a documentary record but also a response.

For me, it was productive and I’m not saying what I did there was great or would compete, in anyway, with those of much more local knowledge but it was creatively very good for me and there are a few images I am proud of because I found myself seeing things in a way that I would perhaps wouldn’t have done at home. Perhaps I would not have had the opportunity to because the types of landscapes were different and new and the conditions, oddly enough, the mist and the rain that I worked in, in South Africa for goodness sake, were unexpected and I found myself doing things and looking at things in ways I might never had considered them before back home.

So, it was very productive I believe for me, and I’m sure I shall transfer some of the ideas, and the kind of methods even, that I worked with over there back home as well.

So, I think there is a blend that needs to be struck. What I’ve learned from doing work close to home is being enormously important especially in terms of workflow and practice, but creatively the sparks that fly when you go somewhere new and you have that stimulus of the new are tremendously important as well. So to me, I’m sure I will say this again, balance is all.

Tim: So when you are out locally, do you work instinctively then or are you typically looking at a location? Do you go somewhere because you have got something expected?

Joe: Yeah, again you know, I think there is …. probably planning does come into it and it certainly has done a lot in the past. Well, now I try and give myself a more of an open brief when I am local, but you can’t get away from the fact that it is still local and the expectation is there and because you want to make the most of your time, you tend to think ‘well now the sky is doing that, therefore, I will go to such and such a place’.

Tim: And, presumably, you have built up a dictionary of possible pictures over time? So everywhere you go there is a ‘oh, I have thought about that before or thought about this before’.

Joe: Well, that’s true and one of the dangers is, especially when you have been successful in a particular place, there is a great temptation to go back there and see whether you can improve on what you did before. Not necessarily a good idea. Definitely isn’t!

A big part of, I think, being creative is to never repeat yourself. But actually, oh yes, you can say if there is something in working progress, where you could keep developing an idea until, as it were, it fulfils its potential, fair enough but once you have done that it is important to move on.

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