IF you live in Henley and like to party, chances are you will have met photographer Martin Cook — though admittedly through the other end of a lens.
Photography — and in particular, photographing people — has been his passion since he was a boy, and eight years ago he started turning up to parties and dinners and black-tie events to capture the faces for the Standard’s Picture This page.
He’s snapped the great and the good of Henley, as well as plenty of celebrities — Boris Johnson at a Danesfield House Hotel do, and Suggs frolicking on the lawn at last year’s Henley Festival, to name but a few. But Cook is not just a happy snapper, as a new exhibition of his more serious and artistic photographs opening this weekend shows.
Less is more, opening at the Old Fire Station Gallery behind Henley Town Hall tonight (Friday) features 70 pictures and four photo installations. Though many of the pictures are portraits, some of them also reflect his love of nature and walking. The glue that holds the exhibition together, though, is his minimalist approach — and his penchant for breaking all the rules.
“It’s the opposite of what I do for Picture This, where everything has to be in focus and in a certain format,” he says.
“In this kind of work, I prefer to focus in on one small part of the face, perhaps the eye. It breaks all the rules, but it has more impact as a piece of art.
“I much prefer people pictures than anything else and what gives me the biggest kick is when someone says they don’t like having their photograph taken. That sparks something inside me and I would then put the camera away and try to get to know that person a bit, until they are a bit more relaxed. It’s a challenge — that I want to work with that person.
“I took some photographs recently of a pair of actors. They didn’t like the photos on their website and wanted some new ones, but neither of them liked having their photo taken. So we spent some time together, got to know one another, and ended up with some photos that they were really pleased with.
“They are a couple — they are actually getting married — and one of the photos is in the exhibition, but not for sale. It’s one of the photos I’m most pleased with. A good portrait is only five per cent technical and 95 per cent is the photographer getting on with the subject.
“I suppose what I’m trying to do is capture something of their personality — perhaps their vulnerability, or perhaps their confidence.”
Cook now uses a Canon digital single-lens reflex camera, but his first attempt at the age of nine was taken on a box camera he found kicking around at home.
“I used to take photographs of my cousin, my brother, or any subject I could get to pose,” he says. “Things were so primitive then. We had a dark room in a shed and you had to dip the pictures in a solution and get silver oxide all over your hands.”
Despite the mess, one of his first shots, a black and white photo of his younger brother Barry, won him 10 shillings in a competition.
He was brought up in Hambleden, and after leaving Maidenhead Grammar School did various jobs before becoming a print salesman.
Although he has been taking photos for nigh-on 50 years, it’s only in the last decade that he has become a professional.
“At one point, all I wanted to photograph were pictures of red kites,” he says. “I used to leave scraps of meat out in my garden in Henley, even though it’s only postage-stamp size, and my pictures featured in the Sunday Express and the Daily Mirror. But then I found out that you are not supposed to feed them, you are supposed to let them find their own food, so that came to an end.”
Nevertheless, his love of the nature and in particular, the beech woods in South Oxfordshire, continue to be fuel for his imagination. The exhibition features four photo installations — with some large A1 size exhibits — entitled Into The Woods Where I Found Myself, which include images of woodland surrounding the outlying villages of Henley as well as objects found there.
He said: “There are lots of lovely circular woodland walks around here. The beech woods are a gift to us. There’s nowhere else quite like it.”
Cook is a convert to the digital age. New digital cameras are “fantastic” and the quality of photography has improved enormously as a result of new technology. However, he still admires the artistic beauty of the monochrome era, and uses special software to replicate the old black-and-white effect.
But in the end a good image, he says, is all about looking for something a little different and managing to capture it — like his reluctant actors, who were very happy with the end result.
“That was a magical moment for me,” he said.
lless is more is at the Old Fire Station Gallery from tomorrow (Saturday) to Tuesday, March 26, 10am to 6pm.