Photographer D. R. Cowles answered questions from Maisonneuve editors Derek Webster and George Sellers. This is the continuation of the interview printed in Maisonneuve #2.
Maisonneuve: Do you see your photographs as having a purpose beyond mere beauty?
Cowles: I never photographed anything for beauty's sake. Art for me is closely connected to the spiritual. There were times when I felt a high energy in a picture, like with the Caraite synagogue (see "Moussa Dar'i, Abassieh, Cairo, Egypt, 1994" on p. 42 in Maisonneuve #2). I don't find it an attractive building, but something moved me - maybe Mr. K, health failing, the old Caraite Jew who let me in, one of the last Caraites left in Cairo. Or the pottery shards left lying around, or the dust on everything - that heavy dust. There's a meaning to these pictures that is beyond my understanding.
M: Since the establishment of Israel, people view the Jewish exodus from Arab counties as sort of an historical inevitability.
DRC: Well, it's true that there has been an ongoing process of voluntary migration from those countries as their communities diminished. But once Israel proclaimed itself a state in 1948, many Jews had to leave Arab lands because of the enormous rise in popular hostility against them. And many people left with nothing, because they weren't allowed to take their possessions with them. The story is different for each country but there are similarities.
Anyway, I became interested in this exodus. Remaining Jewish sites in Europe had already been documented by many people but very 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. I started very, very late in the day. A lot of what I photographed has since disappeared.
M: Go now or don't go at all.
DRC: That's right. When I applied for grants to do this work, and was refused, I realized that if I waited for outside funding, I might very well lose my moment... the sites would be gone. So I didn't wait. This is something photography is very good at, in fact, documenting what is real and present in a moment. Its special strength is its capacity to preserve that moment.
M: That's very surprising, because the images have an Ansel Adams "studied" quality to them, a stillness. They don't feel planned, yet they do feel outside of time.
DRC: I think what you're referring to is a quality of inevitability. I work from intuition. The way my Moroccan guide describes it, he says it's like I have a bell in my head. If the bell rings, I can take a picture, if not, I can't - and it's not worth the labour of setting up the equipment, so we move on. When I come into a building or a site, invariably I set up a master shot, a photo that merely describes the physical space. While the exposure is going, maybe 5 minutes - I use natural light only, so if it's dark, it takes time - I walk around to get to know the place, then arrange a second setup. Almost invariably my second is the better shot.
M: You mentioned earlier that spirituality played a role in your work. I wonder if you'd speak more about that.
DRC: Art functions best in the decay of a strong spiritual society, and dies in a non - spiritual one. Look at the 19th and early 20th centuries: in the West, you have a spiritual society that's becoming secularized. Today it's highly secularized. Art has become very sterile. There's an idea in modern art, a misconception that I think started with the Surrealists, that is true about all the arts in Western society: it's gone down a path and doesn't know where it's going. The cult of shocking, the cult of the ugly - these are more ideas of commerce than anything else. They make an imprint on you so you'll buy a product. I'm not the only one who said it - Picasso said it. It's obvious but very hard to convince people of.
We have borders inside us and it's important to honour people's borders - it's what allows people to be civilized. In the West we are bombarded with images that purposefully target our mental space, our spiritual space, in order to convince us to buy a product. That system of values is now completely entrenched in the art world - violation is considered good art, or serious art. But what is the duration of that and what do you come back to? Well, what is serious art? Serious art, every time you look at it, has a different face - it has a mysterious dialogue with you. You don't read Anna Karenina because it's shocking. Shocking people is just a way of getting their attention. I think we're in a period of de-civilization, and modern art is in the forefront of that, along with the whole movement to use images to sell products to people. The eyes are like any other organ: if you abuse and violate them, they lose their sensitivity and refinement, their ability to take pleasure in what they see. Images are very, very powerful. When we are accosted by images everywhere, like any kind of violation, we become numb.
Art lives in its own world. I know it can discuss social issues but I don't think social issues are central for it. If art is to last, it will last through different historic periods, and it will last because we find it in some way essential to maintaining ourselves as civilized people.