Posts tagged: creativity

We are always being influenced

By , February 4, 2016 3:36 pm

No matter how hard we try to pretend that we are doing things our own way, the fact of the matter is that there is very little we do which is original. Almost all the photographs we take will be informed or influenced by others we have seen in the past. Often that influence is gentle, almost hidden, but occasionally it is quite blatant.

Consider, for instance, this image which I took at a wedding shortly before Christmas. It was long service and I was exploring the rear of the church with a newly acquired (and utterly sublime) 56mm f1.2 on a Fuji X-Pro 1, when I saw a young girl playing with the votive candles, as I pulled the viewfinder to my eye I already new it was an image I had seen before.

Girl with votive candles

Girl with votive candles. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2015

The image it conjured in my mind was by the photographer David Seymour (aka Chim), of a girl called Tereska. The original caption for the photo said:

“Children’s wounds are not all outward. Those made in the mind by years of sorrow will take years to heal. In Warsaw, at an institute which cares for some of Europe’s thousands of “disturbed” children, a Polish girl named Tereska was asked to make a picture of her home. These terrible scratches are what she drew.”

Tereska draws her home, by David Seymour/Magnum 1948

Tereska draws her home, by David Seymour/Magnum. 1948

Clearly they are very different subjects, with one traumatised by war and concentration camps and the other presumably having had no experiences other than a safe a secure upbringing, and I am not trying to draw specific parallels between the two. But equally it is clear that the compositional elements of the older photograph by David Seymour of Magnum were informing the decisions I made as I moved to take that photograph in December.

Good things come to those who wait

By , February 3, 2016 7:43 pm

Yesterday I began work on a new long-term commission, and was struck once again by the way that the smallest of things can resonate with you as a photographer. I have many things in the pipeline at the moment, all of which I have been plugging away at for months if not years. Now, it seems, all those hours of careful cultivation are about to bear fruit. My creative allotment offers many wonderful opportunities to harvest. But I am aware that I have neglected this, my blog.

Back to that moment of resonance, in a tired building somewhere in the UK. I opened a door, probably the thirtieth such door I had opened. On the wall opposite someone had written the message:

Good things come to those who wait

Derelict room with sink and faded carpet

Image from the series “Dreams once played here”. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2016


What’s in a box?

By , January 22, 2015 1:36 pm

The news today is dominated by talk of an impending vote on cigarette packaging, and more specifically on making it plain. But if we are being honest, describing the proposed packaging as plain is at best disingenuous. As far as I am concerned, this is plain cigarette packaging:


Plain fag packet

This is what plain packaging really looks like.


However, the intention is that “plain” packaging will look something like this:


Intended "plain" cigarette packaging as currently sold in Australia.

Anything but “plain” cigarette packaging as currently sold in Australia.


It is amusing to listen to pro-smoking lobby groups argue that “plain” packaging won’t make any difference to smoking uptake by the young, while the advocates for the change argue equally vociferously that it will. Both of them are lying, but for very different reasons. Starting with the tobacco companies, if their argument was correct you would have to ask why historically they all invested so much time, energy and creativity into their packaging, advertising design and branding. My suspicion is that they would be only too happy to settle for truly plain packaging (see my example at top), since they know it would have little impact on their overall sales and market share. Meanwhile the legislators and anti-smoking lobby are quick to say that packaging and branding influences the young and persuades them to start smoking, and that for that reason they need to have an “anti-branding” campaign (against smoking per se rather than a specific manufacturer or brand) to scare the daylights out of people based on the impact it might have on their health.

The great thing about being an adult is that you were once a youth yourself, and if you try hard enough you can remember exactly how you felt about things and reacted to them. So here is something I remember very clearly from my youth, an advert for Benson and Hedges:


Benson and Hedges Pyramid Ad.

Benson and Hedges Pyramid Ad.


I was at boarding school at the time, and I remember a friend, Kevin, sticking this picture up on his wall (along with the many others that the brand released over the period). I thought that this was so cool. Did it make me want to smoke? No, it made me want to be a graphic designer or a photographer (funny that – perhaps it was cigarettes that got me into what I have been doing for the last 20 years!). Did this advert make any of my friends want to smoke? No. It may well have influenced what brand those who did smoke chose to buy, but none of the very clever advertising of the time compelled people who didn’t light up to start. But to be fair the prevalence of cigarette advertising and the ubiquity of people smoking will have influenced a lot of teenagers into thinking that it would be OK if they did. Society did not treat smokers as pariahs in the way it does now, and there can be little doubt that alone has had a huge impact on persuading many never to take it up who might otherwise have done so. But the fact is that some people will always choose to smoke anyway, just like some people choose to take drugs. Indeed it can be the very illegality of it which creates an appeal that is unavoidable. As a result, a part of me wonders whether the “plain” packaging proposed might be less effective than genuinely plain packaging. After all, there can be very few people who are not totally aware of the negative effects of smoking on health, and from the point of view of teenage rebellion, nothing is more of a turn-off than bland.

What’s my point with all this? Partly it is wondering where the limits of state interference in people’s lives should be. Yes, smoking is harmful to your health, but it is still legal, as are many other things which are also harmful to your health. Are we going to go the same way with alcohol? What about sugary products? How about driving – should cars be “plain” by which I mean emblazoned with pictures of contorted bodies of people killed by not being careful enough? What about extreme sports? At what point are my choices MY choices, and is it time for the government to back out and leave us to live our lives as we choose? Increasingly the bean counters are looking to tighten everything to reduce the burden on the state, and while that is understandable surely there must be limits?

I am not a smoker, and I support the legislation that has been enacted over recent years. I love the fact that I can breathe in a pub or restaurant and not come home smelling like an ashtray after a night out. I would not like my own children to start smoking and the overall move to reduce its visibility and therefore acceptability is welcome. But if within this prevailing climate a free person chooses to smoke who am I to castigate them?

One sad part of all this is the effect on creativity within the industry. Cigarette packaging has a long history of great design, and the skill of the artists and designers over the years has been to tap into the prevailing zeitgeist and both reflect it and shape the styles of the times. To work on a small space and create something which reflects society and its sensibilities and fashions is a fabulous skill, one which has now been replaced by proscription and fear. It is a dying art and the death is happening elsewhere for different reasons too – think of the record or CD cover, slowly becoming irrelevant in the era of the digital download.


A discarded Gitanes package in Paris I photographed and made into an artwork which adorns the wall of another Kevin I know. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1992

A discarded Gitanes package in Paris I photographed and made into an artwork which adorns the wall of another Kevin I know.
Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1992


The real reason I started this post is that the news reminded me of a grave I happened across about a year ago. Hidden in the undergrowth of the cemetery of St Mary’s Church in Bexley, less than a quarter of a mile from where I am sitting as I write this, is the headstone above a different box: the coffin of Walter Everett Molins. The headstone was so unusual that despite its hidden position I was convinced he must be a man of some significance, so I took a photo and looked him up.

Molins was born in New York, the son of Jose a Cuban who made cigars and hand rolling cigarettes in Havana in 1874. Jose came to London after a period in the US (when Walter was born). In 1911 Walter and his brother Harold invented a machine which could make almost any type of package, and in 1912 they set up the Molins Machine Company. In 1924 their Mark 1 machine was making 1000 cigarettes a minute and by 1931 they had also set up in Richmond, Virginia: the heart of the US tobacco industry. Walter invented a number of machines and packages for the tobacco industry, the patents for which still exist today, and indeed it was his son, Desmond who having joined the family business invented and patented the hinge-lid pack in 1937 that is so ubiquitous today, and is the basis for all the discussions about the design which should or should not exist upon them. Interestingly Philip Morris relaunched the Marlboro brand in 1954 using the Molins’ designed pack, and it was instantly successful with a 50 fold increase in sales. Perhaps the legislators should be looking at the physical design of the cartons rather than what is printed upon them!

What, I wonder, would Molins make of the discussions today? He is quite literally the father of the modern cigarette pack, but he was an engineer at heart, and no doubt he would simply have worked the problem like all engineers do. The company he created still exists today. Molins PLC had sales of £105.2 million in the year to 31 December 2013, with bases in the UK, the US, Canada, Holland, Brazil, Russia and Singapore. Not bad for figuring out how to pack a few fags.


The grave of Walter Everett Molins.

The grave of Walter Everett Molins. St Mary’s Bexley. Molins invented much of the machinery used in the manufacture and packaging of cigarettes, and his son invented the modern flip-top cigarette carton. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2013


No ordinary field

By , May 2, 2013 10:53 am

The great joy of being a photographer is the access to things and places you might not otherwise see. An associated pleasure comes from talking to people and listening to the little gems of information that they might pass on. I have to confess that I am not very good at listening – it is a skill I am constantly trying to improve, ever mindful of the old adage that we have two ears and one mouth, and we should use them in equal measure!

Anyway, for the past few months I have been engaged in a commission, a side-effect of which is that I have discovered some fascinating things (largely as a result of chance conversations with people I have happened across) about the area in which my studio is based, including some places which I have passed on many occasions without a second glance. Which leads me nicely to this image here.

Sir Hiram Maxim and powered flight bexley

No ordinary field.
Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2013

We all know from our schooling that the first powered flight of a heavier than air vehicle took place at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in December of 1903. Thanks to Orville and Wilbur Wright and their Flyer, aviation as we know it was born. Now consider this unremarkable cricket pitch at Baldwyn’s Park just outside Bexley in Greater London.

On July 31st, 1894, Hiram Maxim with a crew of three, piloted an aircraft of his own invention down a 1,800 foot test track sited where this cricket pitch now basks in the spring sun. The aircraft weighted about 8,000 lbs and was powered by two 360 horse power steam engines (yes, steam engines!). About half way down the track it took off and flew for a distance of about 100 feet before crashing back down to the ground again. It was only meant to be a test, and didn’t fly very high –  some two or three feet up. But despite its instability it proved that very heavy machines could indeed get off the ground and stay up. All that was needed was to understand and develop the means of controlling such craft.

Sadly Maxim did not really pursue his flying invention (although he did invent many other notable things, and is worthy of further investigation). Amercian born he became a naturalised British Subject in 1900, and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1901. It is telling that he was asked towards the end of his life in 1916 about the lack of monument to his work at Baldwyns Park. His response was that the authorities had “demonstrated their appreciation by building the largest, finest and best-equipped lunatic asylum in the world there!”.

So the next time you’re boarding an aircraft somewhere in the world, think about this bit of green in South East London where a little bit of history was made nearly ten years before the Wright Brothers.

Silk purses and sow’s ears.

By , March 8, 2013 10:40 pm

In my last post I mentioned that I could pick up a guitar and make a noise with it, but that it did not make me a musician.

One photographer who was a musician was the great Ansel Adams – a virtuoso pianist by all accounts. Unsurprisingly he was disposed to musical metaphors when talking about photography, and perhaps his most well known proclamation was that the negative is akin to a musical score, while the print is the performance.

A couple of days ago the following photo appeared in my personal Facebook news feed.

Tracy, poorly "performed".

Tracy, poorly “performed”.

It is a “portrait” of a good friend of my wife. I didn’t take it, and I don’t know who did. But my reaction on seeing it was that it was the photographic equivalent of my playing the guitar, but with a slight twist. In this case a photo that I wouldn’t ordinarily have given a second glance caught my eye because the problem was not with the “score” as such, but the “performance”. It had been posted five years ago, but in all that time had merited virtually no attention from her friends, until someone happened to comment on it this week – hence it appearing in my newsfeed.

I couldn’t help myself. I pulled the photo from Facebook, spent 90 seconds retouching it, and then reposted it to her Facebook wall with a tongue-in-cheek quip apologising for touching her up in public.

The reaction was immediate, positive and huge. And it just goes to show that while being able to “see” a good photo at the time of taking is important, part of that creative vision has also got to be about visualising the “performance” of that musical score.

Tracy re-imagined or re-performed.

Tracy re-imagined or re-performed.

Away from the action

By , August 15, 2012 1:48 pm

Any sports photographer will tell you that what is going on around the field of play is as important as the action within the event itself – indeed it offers a rich seam of image possibilities, just look at the wonderful array of imagery to come out of London 2012. So too it is the case with other types of photography including weddings, and a good photographer will be watching what is going on all around them. This is image is a case in point, from the wedding I shot at the weekend. The bride’s son, an apparently quiet boy, kept to himself as the ladies were getting prepared, but he still wanted to keep an eye on what was happening for himself.

A boy watches the goings on from his parents' window

The bride’s son keeps an eye on the comings and goings at the house before the wedding. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2012

Nothing but a pencil

By , July 5, 2012 11:31 am

Over the last couple of days I have been running a photography workshop for the Ideas Foundation at a school in south London. The Ideas Foundation exists to bring access to the creative industries (a growth sector that is a predominantly white, male, middle class preserve) to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We have been learning about de Bono and creative thinking. We have looked at all sorts of different careers that exist within the photographic sector specifically. We have looked at different photographs and questioned why they work (or don’t). But most importantly we have had fun.

In amongst all this the pupils were furnished with basic (think really basic and then multiply by a factor of 10!) cameras and sent out around the pretty large school grounds with a brief to take just two photographs. Their response? “Just two???!! With that rubbish camera???!!?? Why?”

I explained to them that it is the quality of their thinking and curiosity, not the quality of their camera which will yield great results – I then recounted the famous story of Picture Post sending Bert Hardy out with a Box Brownie, and his fabulous result.

To begin with they were too blinkered by their own linear thinking, until one of them, a diminutive fifteen year boy, Wesley, decided to look at his pencil differently. They all saw it, and the floodgate of ideas was breached. Methinks that boy will go far!


Wesley – aged 15 – decided to look at things a little differently. Love a bit of creative thinking. Photo: © Wesley/Ideas Foundation

Panorama theme by Themocracy