Alastair Cook: McArthur’s Store

January 2013

Publication: The Times

The history of photography has taken many twists and turns since the development of the calotype by the Englishman, Henry Fox Talbot and the eponymous Daguerreotype by Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, at the beginning of the Victorian era.

Fox Talbot’s technique involved creating a negative plate capable of making multiple prints. In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer discovered that collodion, a flammable syrupy solution of pyroxylin in ether and alcohol could be used as an alternative to albumen (egg white). These substances were photo-sensitive and used to capture light on a glass plate. The ‘wet collodion’ process required a great deal of skill and involved a number of delicate and complex procedures. That these images were often developed in the field, for example in the reporting of the American Civil War, testifies to the skill of these early photographers. 

The collodion process is capable of the production of negative and positive prints. The contemporary artist and photographer Alastair Cook, has chosen to work with the latter, creating one-off positive prints on metal, known as ‘ambrotypes’ and ‘tintypes’.

The results are arresting and nostalgic, contemplative and intriguing. Cook, who completed a residency during the summer of 2012 in Dunbar, was based in McArthur’s Store - a painstakingly renovated building, dating from 1658, situated in the oldest part of Dunbar harbour. 

The residency, the result of a bold initiative by the arts organistion Northlight and the Dunbar Harbour Trust, is an exemplary community arts project. As Cook reveals in Jez Curnow’s short documentary film, his approach was sensitive and non-obtrusive. McArthur’s Store, as its name implies, is a working building, even now. Cook shared a space with fishermen who were making and mending creels, as part of a tough living catching shellfish in the North Sea.

Gradually the men and their children became fascinated by the quietly-spoken Cook as he photographed other, more compliant, sitters.  Gradually, partly as a result of Cook’s soft charisma, the subjects - smooth-skinned boys and girls, grainy weather-beaten men, the shy and the extroverted, the eccentric and the thoughtful - all came under the camera’s spell. Cook used original equipment to produce his images and this vision of antiquity, a tripod camera with hood, added to the attraction.

Cook’s images conjure an immediate antiquity. Perhaps this is because of our knowledge of Roger Fenton’s images from the Crimean War and Mathew Brady’s from the American Civil War, as well as those created by Margaret Julia Cameron and Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll).

Here the fixing of a few seconds of time may last for centuries and the faces of Dunbar will float before us, mesmerizing and forever alive, endlessly provoking questions.

 Cook’s portraits create their own atmosphere and intrigue. Rooted in place, they reflect its spirit, at once harsh and poetic - the tracings of light from a northern sky on raw metal.


Jez Curnow’s film can be seen at - McArthur's Store