Julie Cockburn is a visual artist that goes beyond the traditional definition of “image” and turns old photographs into three-dimensional objects, adding a brand new chapter to their story.
In this exclusive interview, Cockburn talks about her artistry and overall vision.
Hello Julie! You mainly use portraits in your work and, when you do, the art you add to the photograph will usually point out a certain detail about the person being portrayed and get the viewer thinking about his or her character, taking in account the alterations that you conducted. When using a picture of a landscape, what is it that you try to transmit to the viewer? What are the details that captivate you and that you try to reinforce?
One of the main things I am trying to achieve when I show my work is a transferal of the creative process rather than a didactic reading of what I have physically made. By using an archetypal image – that of the generic portrait, landscape, house etc – I hope that we are all starting from the same point of reference from where I hope to encourage individual journeys of curiosity and investigation.
You have studied sculpture and that is present in your work through the three-dimensionality of your photographs. Why is it important for you that the pictures get this three-dimensional feature to it? What value does this add to a simple 2D image?
My mum kept all our drawings we made when we were small, as young as aged two or three, and I found them recently. I was fascinated at how intent I was, even then, in making images into objects by cutting them out, freeing them from the A4 pages they were drawn on. When I was at college studying sculpture, I was experimenting with that space somewhere between two and three dimensions, and all my degree show was wall hung cut postcards and shopping catalogs. I see the found photos that I use as objects, rather than purely image. They have body, a patina and history. They often have tinting instructions, names and dates written on the back. I suppose by stitching through and cutting into the photo I am emphasizing that physicality. I also frame them as sculptural objects. It’s an important part of my process.
There is something about making an image into an object. It’s like a way of containing it. In other words, an image is a bit like a song; you can have it your mind’s eye in much the same way as you can hum a tune. The images In advertising, on TV, on your phone, on Facebook are ubiquitous – they’re everywhere – and I feel that if I put emphasis on a photo as an object I am re-capturing the image somehow, re-seeing it in a 3 dimensional context and giving it back some weight. And my work is so precise and detailed that people get really close to look at my handiwork. It’s wonderful to see people looking so closely.
Art by Julie Cockburn
You could use any kind of photograph, or even take pictures of a specific subject that you find intriguing. What drives you to look for old ones instead?
I really enjoy the process of searching for things – in junk shops or on the Internet. I have to go with my instincts and it’s fun not always knowing why I am drawn to something I find. Working with a blank canvas can sometimes be quite intimidating; when I find a photo (or painting, map, postcard, book etc) that interests me, it’s like entering into a pre-existing conversation, and I adjust my interventions accordingly.
Do you ever think, when you’re conducting the alterations to some photograph, how the subjects would feel about them?
Yes, sometimes. I find it difficult to work with images of people that I know. I use generic images and I see them as the archetypal every man/woman because they are anonymous. I work intuitively, so my interventions are a manifestation of a psychological emotion made physical.
In a way, everyone wears a “figurative mask” in their everyday lives, depending on the situation one is faced with (such as a working environment, friendly socialization or just to fit in better in general). You seem to explore that quite well in your work. Do you feel that the art you add to the photographs accentuates these masks or, on the contrary, does it somehow strip them off?
I think that there is definitely a shortcoming in a photograph of someone, as far as their whole personality is concerned, particularly in the studio shot portraits from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that I like to use. They tend to be very still and staid. But it is this physical formality that enables me to add the ‘character,’ albeit an abstracted one. I hope that by concealing a face one is possibly more curious about what’s underneath. Traditionally, masks have been used to reveal some inner quality or power rather than a method of disguise.
Art by Julie Cockburn
What are the features that strike you immediately when first meeting someone? Are these the same that you first take notice of when you find a photograph to work with?
I suppose it’s what we have been talking about. A photograph is so much more than an image of someone, and people are so much more than the image of themselves. When I meet someone, I am definitely more intrigued by the workings of their mind than their hairdo.
Because of the way I work, I am initially concerned with the formal and compositional aspects of a found photograph – in particular the colors, the space around a figure, is there room for me to intervene in any way. I have the photos sitting around my studio for years sometimes before I decide to make a work with them. It could be because they fit a series I am working on, or perhaps they have got under my skin and inspired a new piece. It works both ways.
What would you add if you were to work with your own self-portrait?
I don’t know. I have thought about it but never found the right avenue. I’m not sure I want to be so physically present in my work. I have made several pieces of work where I embroidered copies of the drawings I made when I was a child, however, and that was an interesting exercise. A bit like a self-portrait actually. It was poignant and strangely competitive at the same time.
What do you have in mind for the future of this project?
I would like to continue to explore my fascination with the juxtaposition of the found photograph and abstraction, composition and feeling. One avenue in particular I am keen to pursue is that of scale and dimension, expanding beyond the traditional 8in x10in format.