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Nick Cobbing working in Svalbard by Amy Balkin

If you have a question about my work please send me a mail I’ll add new answers on this page.

Can I commission you?

Yes of course. Outside of my own themed projects I do some commissioned work each year which I enjoy. Commissioned work tends to be related to the themes I’m passionate about: the natural world, the Arctic, science and sustainability, but not exclusively. Sometimes I’ll weave magazine assignments into existing work too. The best thing is to call me or run it by me in an e-mail. Outside of the editorial sector, I will undertake some commercial work -especially where it fits with the values present in my existing work.

Where can I buy a print?

I tend to sell my work directly to buyers, I oversee the entire printing process from tests and proofs right through to the final piece. Printing is usually done in London and the final piece is shipped along with a certificate of authenticity, within 14 days but dependent on my availability. Editions and size vary between series; for the ice work that is an edition of 20, on a paper stock that is 20 x 24 inches. Work is available framed and unframed. Existing pieces can be seen in London, by appointment and given adequate notice. Certain images are available through a London based gallery. Please e-mail me for more information about prints.

How do I license your images for publication?

Most magazines and publishers tend to contact me directly, I remain in contact with picture editors to make sure they have what they need. If you work for a new publication and haven’t been in touch before, I’d be delighted to hear from you, just drop me a line via e-mail, or if urgent call me directly. I can advise on which stories are available, negotiate rates and upload images to you rapidly via ftp. When I’m in a remote location I have an assistant look after my e-mail, experienced in the business, they have access to my archive and can usually raise me if it’s a question they can’t answer.

You’re not with an agency?

Right now I really like working independently, though I been represented by photo-agencies in the past, it’s been a natural progression rather than a strategic choice. Maybe I’ll join an agency one day, it was on my to-do-list for a while: “Must join agency!”. It’s become easier to work directly with image users, following the explosion of technology, also I like to know what’s driving magazines to use certain stories and not others. My work is quite specialised and it’s easy to get facts wrong, so supplying captions and copy directly maintains accuracy. There can be a pressure to conform in an agency setting too, to make the work more commercial or compete with a trend in photography.

What are your photographic influences?

The photography book His Photographs and Notes by W Eugene Smith, got under my skin when I was 17 and started a photo-book obsession which now covers a wall of my house. I bought all the Smith books I could find and it led to work by Bruce Davidson, (Central Park is a favourite) and by Larry Towell, particularly the Mennonites. Most of Eugene Richards’ work, particularly Americans We and the early self published books he made, Chris Killip’s In Flagrante too. Alex Webb is perhaps the ‘god’ of colour, The Photographic Essay by William Albert Allard is very good too. I don’t make a lot of portraits but I look at Richard Avedon a lot and I was drawn to Anton Corbijn for his ideas.

And the written word?

Novels and fiction are a very good companion to have when making photographs. I started reading the Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy during the ice work of 2009. I’d come back from being outside in the cold, sit in my cabin and drift from the Arctic to McCarthy’s Mexican border. It may sound strange, but I think his style of writing helped me connect further with the landscape, the way he builds characters from the outside in. All the people in his novels are defined by landscape and circumstance and to achieve that he describes their surroundings in vivid detail. Some of the best photographic stories promote characters in this vivid way, in the same way that a good writer will build a character in a work of fiction. I realised that a large part of the fiction I liked was set outdoors too: Writers like Annie Proulx, Peter Hoeg, Barbara Kingsolver and Per Petterson.

You tend to work collaboratively with NGOs, arts organisations and now science teams, why is this?

Working on your own as a photographer can be hard, there is always the feeling that however good you are at researching the subject, you’re missing something. Working with a few specialist NGOs I can get closer to the underlying issues. Another benefit of working with partner organisations is that the photography can be directed to a ‘space in the ether’, the work is actually required. There is a heightened sense of purpose when teaming up with an NGO, which in a world of overproduction of images is no bad thing.

Is there a conservation or sustainability message in your work?

Working in the Arctic you can’t ignore the pace of the changes taking place. In terms of the loss of sea ice coverage in Summer, that has been more dramatic than anyone predicted. You become aware of how everything connects in that place, of the interdependent nature of the Arctic system. You quickly realise how it connects to the rest of the world too, in terms of climate and temperature regulation, ocean currents and sea levels. The Arctic becomes a prism through who you can see the first signs, the implication of human ‘forcing’ of our climatic system.

But it’s not so evident on your site?

I don’t push a message through my site, my work is already doing that through the websites and publications of the organisations that I’ve partnered with. I wanted to make this a place where the photographs can unravel as pure stories and draw people in that way. I’m a photographer not a campaigner and I wanted to set out to make great photographs rather than set out to make great environmentalism. Of course if I could make great photographs then they would support great environmentalism…! That said, there are plenty of resources and links available on the Background page of this site, so the information is there and I urge you to explore it.

Why the Arctic?

It all started by chance when I was chosen for an assignment to Alaska back in 2000. I had to go out on the sea ice off Prudhoe Bay and whilst there something clicked; I just felt incredibly at home in the cold and the space of it. Twelve years and nine trips on, that feeling hasn’t worn off and I still love working there. Something about the space of it and how harsh the conditions can get, how brutal the weather can be there.

So will you stay with the Arctic, or go back to other stories?

My heart is very much still in the Arctic, but I’d like to work on some other stories too. I’m putting together a book (or books) about different aspects of the Arctic terrain, which is going to take a lot of my time, so the Arctic theme is intensive for now.

Why not the Antarctic?

They’re so different. The Arctic is a group of separate countries facing a frozen (or not so frozen!) ocean at the centre. The Antarctic is a continent land mass surrounded by ocean. What is happening in the two places is somewhat different too. You could say that what is happening (and going to take place) in the Arctic over the next few years, is so massive that it deserves a focus of its own. There’s a feeling that comes from working there, that you owe it that singular focus.

Are you a photojournalist, documentary photographer, or artist?

For commercial reasons photography exists in silos; in order to buy and sell something it has to exist as a package, it must remain distinct. That becomes extremely limiting for the photographer. I trained at art college and then became a black and white printer, I worked for national dailies and monthly magazines, I draw on all those skills to make a story. What matters to me personally is that I turn out a good authentic piece of communication, that has impact and emotional value. I’ll consciously stray across any boundaries I’m given, in order to do that. As photographers there is a pressure to migrate toward the particular market that has chosen us, but that compromise can limit the truth of what we make. Consciously and unconsciously we play to the dominant style of the silo that offers the most validation or money. The paradox in accepting the freedom to make more work is the dawning awareness that our work may be less stylistically free.

There’s a big contrast between your earlier work and the Ice work

At first the two areas of work were hard to reconcile on one website. I even thought of splitting the work off onto a separate site, but resisted. Over the years a connection between all the stories emerged; a sense of ‘people in the landscape’. The Living Lightly story is about communities reducing their impact on land and the Ice work is about our own impact on the Arctic –how the landscape and sea level will change as a result. The Tibet story is about the impact of politically motivated modernisation on the streets of a sacred city. It took a long time, but I found the connecting thread of the stories; the perception of human impact on the world and what we then look like, standing in that changed landscape.

Do you still work on film?

I used to make pictures daily on black & white film, but these days I use black & white only for ‘family’ and for notebook pictures. I never imagined that colour would become so central, because I found it harder to work with initially, really hard. Now I actively choose colour over black & white. I want to use black & white again for a story, so before it was discontinued I hoarded a stack of Kodak Tri-X in my fridge. When I make coffee those yellow boxes next to the milk tell me I must go out and do it soon.

Have you ‘gone digital’?

When I started working at sea for Greenpeace, we’d process colour negative film in a tiny darkroom at the bottom of the ship. Trying to get temperatures right as the ship heaved and rolled in severe weather, then drying the film to meet news deadlines, all the while managing the sea-sickness above the smell of the chemicals. Digital technology did save us that ritual; there was perhaps a sigh of relief when it came. Now I like to go back to film when I can, as it reinforces the craft aspect. Alex Webb said recently: “I dislike the intangibility” of digital media, which strikes a chord. But in the area that I work in, digital cameras are so useful, enabling me to work quickly in the unstable places like helicopters, ships and small boats. As digital cameras have become more advanced another advantage emerged, that we can shoot in ever dimmer conditions. For a photographer who likes to explore marginal light that new option can be very exciting. The advent of the digital age meant I never had to spend that queasy half hour amongst chemicals, in the dark at the bottom of a rolling ship, ever ever again!

Why do you prefer photography to other media?

Because photography is faster than drawing, yet slower than TV.

I went to art school and still love drawing and I’ve used a video camera on and off to earn a living, but I still feel photography strikes a pace that can be absorbed by the human mind. There seems to be a natural speed to which the human mind uncovers and remembers information. I think that benefits the imagination and allows a sense of discovery to aid the reader. If I could became skilled and resourced in any medium available, I think I would still go straight to photography.