Life through the lens

Life through the lens

In an age of selfies and instant phone images, it seems that everyone wants to get behind and in front of the lens. Not necessarily a negative thing... but when it comes to the art of proper photography, there’s an expertise required in capturing that perfect pic. Julie Henry stayed focused and zoomed in to find out more.

Renowned photographer Joe Cornish has captured the natural beauty of some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world but there is one place that holds an enduring fascination. Roseberry Topping, in North Yorkshire, has been dubbed the “mini- Matterhorn” because of its distinctive half cone shape and jagged cliff edge. Cornish has been photographing the landmark for 25 years; in all seasons, all weathers and from all angles. It even played a small part in the decision to move with his young family to Great Ayton, the village right underneath it.

“We were in the North York Moors and in the distance was this funny little conical hill called Roseberry Topping. You could see it from almost everywhere although it wasn’t the highest prominence in the area,” he said. “It has magnetism to it. I felt that it would give me a kind of inspiration to get out with my camera and that is exactly how it’s proved.”

In many ways, it is not the hill itself but the context, the surrounding Yorkshire landscape that are the focus. Cornish uses his camera to capture the lie of the land, the habitat, its trees and plants, with Roseberry providing “a wonderful punctuation mark”.

The beautiful images have proved popular, particularly with local residents. However, as Cornish points out, popularity isn’t the point.

Throughout a career which has involved more than 30 travel books, high-profile commissions, a thriving workshop business, gallery and cafe housed in a beautiful Georgian building in Northallerton, it has always been about the work.

Born in Exeter, Cornish studied fine art at Reading University in the 1970s but the abstract culture of the time left him uninspired. The camera was his salvation. As a photographer’s assistant, first in Washington DC, then in London, he was part of a boom time in the industry, with celebrity photographers such as Terence Donovan, Brian Duffy and David Bailey, earning more than First Division footballers.

The assignments – portraits of young musicians and actors and below the line advertising and design - offered the prospect of success and financial reward but Cornish began to feel conflicted.

“Where you have to make big sacrifices in the commercial world is that you are not doing work based on your own ethos or artistic instinct but rather on the needs of the market place,” he explains. “I still had this part of me that was very conflicted and I think the reason for that is that I’ve always wanted to be free of commercial pressures and I also loved being outside- that was a strong motivation for me.”

The opportunity to work as a travel photographer took him in the creative direction he wanted. From 1986 to 1995, Cornish worked on more than 30 travel books for three or four different publishers, spending much of that time abroad.

Photographing far-flung wildernesses, from Alaska to South Africa, as well as spending three decades capturing stunning images from around the British Isles, has convinced him of the vital role photography can play in environmental advocacy. Cornish believes that the human condition yearns for and is bolstered by a connection to nature and beauty. His job is about capturing and hopefully sharing that sense of joy and therapeutic benefit with some kind of audience.

His outstanding work has been recognised by his peers. Cornish received the annual Power of Photography award in 2006 and in 2008 he was made an honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. Another highly respected photographer said recently that his work was “as close to artistic and technical perfection as you can get”.

Cornish has lived in North Yorkshire since 1993, with his wife, Jenny Earle, and their two children. In 2004 he bought Register House, a Grade II Listed Building in Northallerton and established Joe Cornish Galleries.

The gallery, over two floors, houses a programme of exhibitions, particularly young and local photographers and artists. Collaborating with David Ward and other photographers, Cornish runs popular workshops that draw visitors from abroad as well as closer to home. Assignments still take him overseas. Working with renowned wildlife photographer and TV presenter Mark Carwardine on Polar expedition cruise ships has enabled Cornish to photograph breathtaking landscapes in the Arctic and Antarctic. He has just returned from Greenland, which he described as “genuinely one of the most exciting experiences, partly because it is very remote, relatively unknown and unexplored.”

Back home, the varied landscape of Yorkshire – from Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay to Higger Tor, in the Peak District, is still a constant inspiration.

“It is the biggest county in England and obviously it’s the best. I don’t think anyone disputes that, Yorkshire person or otherwise,” said the 61-year-old. “It’s a very broad piece of geography - from Spurn Point to Settle and including the watershed on the western side of the Pennines.”

He describes the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors as ”jewels in the landscape crown” that, unlike many other picturesque UK tourist destinations, remain relatively crowd-free.

With its subtlety and complexity, the county provides the perfect backdrop to his workshops, which generally attract intermediate photographers.

“If you look hard at Yorkshire it has these hidden depths; it’s literally full of caves and it has, to me, emotional depths as well,” he said. “The complexity of the land, the geology, the overlay of flora, the natural vegetation, with more than 12,000 years of human occupation.” Its beauty is more than skin deep and photographers have to work that bit harder to capture it.

“The Yorkshire tops can be bleak and that presents quite a challenge for the photographer,” said Cornish. “It’s not all flashing mountain tops as is often the case in Scotland, which I love by the way. Because of that, it’s a great practise ground for any landscape photographer meaning you have to work harder at finding its beauty.

It’s not an obvious, superficial beauty, but having explored and increasingly understood this landscape through the years I have fallen in love with it.” Despite the county’s industrial past and its impact on the land, nature’s burgeoning fertility is on display everywhere, fuelled by the benign climate.

“Now, especially when there is such concern about the future, I always feel that Yorkshire gives me a lot of hope because each year you go around the countryside and nature still seems to have the upper hand a lot of the time,” said Cornish. The same entrepreneurial spirit which gave rise to Yorkshire’s bygone industrial success is alive and well and was vital when Cornish was setting up his enterprises in Northallerton.

“The county has a ‘get on and do things’ kind of attitude,” he said “This was a place where you felt you could do things and people would react positively and be supportive, which they absolutely are. ”

The cafe at Register House is the engine room of the gallery and provides a focal point. Visitors from abroad insist they’ve found the best coffee in the UK. Cafe staff bake every day and serve up fresh, local produce, including “amazing cakes” from an artisan specialist baker in Richmond.

Run by a local daughter and mother team, the cafe helps to fund the gallery, which in 2020 will see shows by Mark Littlejohn, Take a View’s Landscape Photographer of the Year 2014, and a talk by the great American landscape photographer Charles Cramer. Musical events featuring young talent are also held in the first floor “long gallery”, with its new wooden floor providing superb acoustics. There’s a lot going on but the work remains the point. He recalls sound advice given to him in the early days by a veteran photographer: “You look after the work and the money will look after itself”.

"I was out last night with my camera,” said Cornish, “photographing on the hills, with Roseberry there in the distance. There’s so much to celebrate and be proud of if you live in Yorkshire. I’m a bit zealous about it, maybe because I’m an incomer. I feel very grateful to live here.”