Julie Cockburn’s Old Photographs, New Art

In Julie Cockburn’s hands, the sepia and black-and-white tones of forgotten photographs are reinvigorated with bursts of colorful embroidery; landscapes and portraits of strangers become a canvas for abstract experimentation. Her exhibition “Slight Exposure” opens tonight at Yossi Milo Gallery in Chelsea, and is on view through January 25. I spoke with Cockburn about her unique methodology and where she finds her photographs.

You’re working with found images. What is it about a particular photograph that speaks to you when you discover it? How do you know that a particular image is worth working with?

The photos I use are generally old – from another era – not for nostalgic resonance particularly, but because there is a quality of the pose or generic ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘child’, ‘house’, or ‘landscape’ that I find offers a space for me to add a story or narrative of some sort. The portrait studio photos of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s for instance, have a still, staged quality that somehow allows, if not invites, my interventions, and they also often have a patina and color tint that I love.

Can you tell me a bit about some of the resources you’re using to find your photographic source material?

I find myself using online sources more and more frequently. Whenever possible, I still enjoy roaming through charity and junk stores and car boot sales, but a busy schedule and my desire to work in series, and the phenomenal resources on the Internet, make online research more time-efficient. Whichever approach I take, I am often led down an unexpected creative path by a serendipitous discovery.

The Seismologist, 2013The Seismologist, 2013. Altered found photograph

How is working with an image of landscape or architecture different from working with one that involves portraiture or the human face? How is it similar?

Surprisingly, it makes little difference. What all the images I work with have in common is a quality of the generic, the iconic. My approach to each image is fundamentally the same: a sort of completion/conversation or narrative hinted at through abstraction and play.

What are some of the technical methods you’re using to alter or augment these photographs?

I combine the technology of computer graphics and traditional craft such as embroidery. Other more emotional techniques include cutting and defacing using cut-and-paste collage.

Bubble Hill, 2013Bubble Hill, 2013. Hand embroidery on found photograph

Do you find old photographs sad, in a way? After all, they’re personal images that have been discarded… and many of them feature people who might have died by the time you personally discover their image.

There is certainly a poignancy about the objects themselves; I feel that somehow there is a sense of something being rescued from obscurity. The photos are often sold to me as anonymous job lots from house clearance sales or in a dusty cardboard box in the corner of a junk shop. So the photos as objects may have a sadness perhaps, but as images I feel they have a strength in their archetypal resonance of the Everyman.

Julie Cockburn’s “Slight Exposure” opens tonight at Yossi Milo Gallery and is on view through January 25.

Main image: The Favourite Child, 2013. Hand embroidery on found photograph

All images © Julie Cockburn, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

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