Register Tuesday | April 23 | 2019

An Interview with D.R. Cowles, Part I

For the past 10 years, D. R. Cowles (pronounced Coles) has been photographing historic architecture and cultural remnants in North Africa. Jewish sites have been his primary focus, though he has also photographed Roman ruins, historic Islamic archite

For the past 10 years, D. R. Cowles (pronounced Coles) has been photographing historic architecture and cultural remnants in North Africa. Jewish sites have been his primary focus, though he has also photographed Roman ruins, historic Islamic architecture, and traditional Moroccan architecture in landscape.

After the Second World War, spurred by political tensions, entire Jewish communities in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco - some with roots going back to antiquity - emigrated to Israel or elsewhere. Morocco's 1950 Jewish population of 300,000, for example, has dwindled to some 3,500 today. Virtually no Jews remain in Algeria and Egypt.

This July, the recently established Jewish Museum of Casablanca - the only Jewish museum in the Islamic world - formally opened its doors to the public with a major exhibition of Cowles' work. To help support the voice of multiculturalism in Morocco, Cowles gifted the prints to its permanent collection. The exhibit will be on view until July 2003. A travelling exhibition is also being planned by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Cowles spoke with Editors Derek Webster and George Sellers earlier this summer.

Maisonneuve: Why did you go to North Africa to photograph synagogues?

DRC: During my university studies in European and Jewish history, I became interested in Jewish communities in North Africa that fled or were expelled from their countries after the establishment of the state of Israelan exodus that was eclipsed by the much greater historical disaster that befell the Jewish communities in Europe.  Remaining Jewish sites in Europe had already been widely documented but little attention had been paid to North Africa and some of these communities were 2,000 years old. The evidence of ancient communities was disappearing at an extraordinary rate. In fact I started very late in the day to photograph these sites, and a lot of what I photographed has since disappeared. 

Between 1993 and 1998-99 I made several trips to Morocco, one to Egypt, one to Tunisia.  In those years there was a window of opportunity an historic moment when you could still go to these Arab countries and get a permit to photograph Jewish sites. After the 2nd Intifada began in September 2000, that window closed. When I went to North Africa my aim wasn't to make aesthetic documents, it was simply to document whatever I could as fast as possible.  We would show up in a little town, hunt down the old man with the keys to the synagogue, and maybe we had half an hour or an hour to photograph before we had to leave, either because of our own time constraints or those of whoever opened the doors for us.  I had to learn to work very quickly with a cumbersome and slow medium - there was no moment in which to meditate the aesthetics of the image.

M: What are your technical specifications? Why did you choose them for these photographs and what do you think this enhances in your images? Why not 35 mm?

DRC:  I started photographing in my teens in 35 mm...much later I moved to a 5 x 7 negative which gave me a lot of detail but which I still had to enlarge for a sellable print.  The problem was, I developed an allergy to chemicals and had to figure out a way to minimize my darkroom time.  That's what brought me to 8 by 10 contact printing on printing out paper.  You expose the print outside the darkroom - either in direct sunlight or on machines with high UV lamps - then process it by toning, fixing, and washing. 

It gives the most luminous and detailed kind of print you can make. But when I started my North Africa work in 1993, I wasn't thinking American large-format aesthetic tradition. I was thinking: make the document and get on to the next one while the going is good. I covered a lot of ground in a day.  It was only later that I started to think in aesthetic terms, after I came back from my first trip and started printing.  While I was taking the pictures it was only, Do I have the feeling this is a good picture, is this what I want? Does it talk to me?

M:  What role does documentary realism (or the kind of photography you are doing) play in shaping human perception?

DRC: Unlike the pure arts where the subject is born in ones mind, in photography the subject is actual and in front of you. Separate from you.  The strength of photography is in the documentation of what is real and present at a moment that will then disappear. A photographs power over us is rooted in the same relationship we have to a snapshot, an emotional connection with time. If we take a picture of our kids when they are 5 and we look at it when they're 20, that movement and its effect on our mind is the core of what I call classical photography. Which we're now in a process of losing to digital technology which manipulates everything. The first photographers looked at the world with absolute awe; they were in awe of photography as a form and that gave their work direction.  But photography is an industrial art form - it's changed - it is itself a moment in the history of art. It's over.

The materials I use are a good example of this. In 1994, the negative I need for the paper I print on was taken off the market by Eastman Kodak. I had to buy up the remainder of the roll. Six months later the company making the paper went into receivership. I had to buy up a freezer full of their paper to ensure I could finish the project. Last year Agfa decided to discontinue the negative I've been using to replace the Kodak one. So I had to buy up the entire last cut of Agfas production of this film. The machines that manufacture that film are being torn out of the building and that film will never be made again.  Im staying one step ahead of the dog biting at my heels. The digital dog. Not only are the sites disappearing, not only is the window of opportunity closing, but the very medium in which I am working is being discontinued.

M:  Do you alter anything in a photo?  How much effect did you directly have upon these images?  

DRC: I change nothing. I consider the moment of making a photograph as one of historic revelation, beyond my judgement or comprehension. When I walk into a building, exactly what I see is what I believe I should be photographing. I don't move things around. Some people make setups - I would never do that. If you start orchestrating it and moving things around, you've dispelled the real moment - turned real objects into stage props.  When I studied film at NYU, I was influenced by something Roberto Rossellini told us, that the medium of the dramatic film no longer worked for him because he felt now a great urgency to describe the world exactly as it was, almost scientifically, rather than to dramatize it.  Rosellini's statement was my guiding principle for this work: to see what was really there and to record it just as it was, without striving for effect.

M: There's such an incredible capturing of detail in so many of your photos, it seems part of your basic definition of what a photograph is.

DRC: I love detail. I like to photograph layers the layers in a single image show a process, but its not filmic - it's photographic, because it's still.  When I photographed the Carving Exercise I found fastened to the wall in a 14th century medresseh (Islamic religious school), it captivated me because it detailed the process of how that kind of traditional plaster carving was done.  In pictures I did in Egypt, I made them so you could see the layers exposed by the decay of the building. Not because I'm romantically inclined towards decay. I show how a building is crumbling because this unveils the under-faces of its construction, its life story.

Part II...