Leith artist Alastair Cook harnesses power of silver and light

Alastair Cook: Leith based artist readies for alternative photography exhibition.
Alastair Cook: Leith based artist prepares for alternative photography exhibition.Carl Radford

In a white painted room lit brightly by spotlights, an artist is pacing.

It’s an early winter morning at the Royal Botanic Gardens and Alastair Cook has arrived to see the place where his next exhibition is to be held.

Tall and slim with grey-flecked hair and rough bristled beard, he stops mid-stride to stand in the centre of the smooth slate floor and turns like a needle in a compass to scrutinize the space.

“Hmm, maybe here...” he mutters softly, as his fingers unconsciously trace patterns through the air.

Clear blue-grey eyes, more used to chasing light and shadows, gaze instead with intense focus at each blank wall.

Alastair is a photographer. A filmmaker. An artist.

But right now he looks like the artistic equivalent of a tiger in a cage. A wild force of creativity held between four walls of plain white plyboard.

“It won’t take much though,” he says, breaking his trance and smiling. “Isn’t this a great area? I’ll be exhibiting here as part of the Alt Photo Festival.”

For a former architect come Leith based artist who spent last summer in residency in Dunbar harbour with local fishermen and a kettle, the title of ‘photographer’ feels too simple a word to describe Alastair and his work.

He’s more of an alchemist or wizard, using potions of liquid silver and light to capture time and people.

Alastair Cook

“I use a process called wet plate collodion, making tintypes – essentially a process of developing a photograph on metal,” Alastair, 41, explains.

“I take sheets of thin aluminium and coat them carefully with a photographic emulsion called collodion. It’s a kind of syrupy substance that I spread out across the sheets by tilting them evenly.

“They’re then immersed in silver nitrate before being loaded into the camera. It only takes about 10 minutes to create a photograph as the image has to be exposed and developed while still wet.”

Developed in around 1850, the collodion process that Alastair uses revolutionised photography at the time, speeding up the development process dramatically.

With results that are intriguingly captivating, alternately as soft and delicate as they can be deep and grainy, it’s a technique which produces portraits of antique depth.

“I’m a contemporary artist working at quite a nostalgic process I suppose,” says Alastair musingly.

“It works well for very old people or very young people. It can show the lightness in skin of the youth or the deep wrinkles of the elderly. But for those of us in the middle, it tends to show a little bit too much which can make us uncomfortable.

“For me, an artist who loves portraiture and images with people in them, it’s ideal,” he says. “One of the things about photography is that it’s generally a solitary art form. For someone like me though, who always prefers to be with someone, the collodion is perfect.

“It’s so involved as a process. It has to be, as one minute I’m there and the next minute I’m disappearing into the dark and then I’m back again fiddling with your hair or telling you to sit still and then I’m gone again, back under a hood, shouting at people to stand there, sit there, move that way.

“Then, all of sudden I come back with a tray of smelly water. I drop the tin into it and then you’re there. Up you come. A portrait of you appears.

“It’s quite a moment for people who have no idea what’s happening or what I’m on about.”

It’s this moment of unexpected surprise, pleasure, perhaps even magic, that Alastair appears to be drawn too.

Alastair Cook

“Hanging in my kitchen is a picture of a little girl,” he says. “It’s from around the 1860s and it’s absolutely knackered, bent in one place, but it’s an absolutely exquisite, beautiful little thing.

“And it’s not just the vintage of it that I love - it’s more than that. In her face you can see she’s absolutely caught by what’s happening. I get emotional just thinking about it.

“Light and silver are the two most important things. I don’t have a shutter for the camera. I am the shutter. My hand comes and goes. I’m counting every time I make a plate. Isn’t that amazing? I love that.

“There’s intensity to it.”

Alastair pauses, thoughtfully, adding: “I don’t know how I look at things, it’s just instinctual. You don’t think, you just do. I mean I’m looking at your face right now and I can see how lovely the side light is on that part of your face, your cheek, and I can see the shadows it casts.

“All photographers have that instinct but I do think digital has degraded it to a degree as it makes things too automated.

“People just point and click instead of thinking about light. If you learn about film you have to learn about light. Technology doesn’t always make you understand light. Though I love digital cameras too – I’ve had tremendous fun with mine.”

As part of Alastair's planned exhibition at the Alt Photo Festival this month, practicing photographers are invited to learn more about unconventional photographic methods and chemical-based techniques.

“It’s interesting that with any dying form, people have a last minute interest in it,” says Alastair, who will be giving public talks on his work with collodion.

“With film you have to think more because you’re committing light onto chemicals. You can use Photoshop if you want. It’s great. But what’s the point?

“If you’re sculpting with your hands you don’t suddenly get your oils out and colour it in.

“Both are different mediums. Both are brilliant mediums in their own right. A camera is just a box after all.”

The Alt Photo Festival runs from Feb, 28, until March, 13, at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh.

For more information on Alastair Cook and to keep up with his work you can follow his online blog.

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