Sting, Tina Turner and Victoria Wood feature in new Suffolk exhibition
- Credit: Ian Cook
For globe-trotting photographer Ian Cook, who has spent most of his life criss-crossing the world’s surface in search of arresting images, where do you go to switch-off? The answer for a keen sailor like Ian is simple – Suffolk.
Ian and his family have been coming to the Suffolk coast since 1970 and still enjoy sailing on the Alde in between nipping back to London for work.
“Suffolk is lovely. I discovered almost by accident in 1970 when we came up for a break and so we kept coming back. We’ve got a cottage at Friston and it’s just perfect. I love sailing at Aldeburgh. I’m here for the winter and spring series. You can just lose yourself out on the river. Time stands still.”
Although most of his pieces, largely for The Observer, The Sunday Times and America’s all-powerful People Magazine, has taken him to the far corners of the Earth, Ian also worked in his adopted home county, usually photographing Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears with some of their high-profile guests at the Aldeburgh Festival.
Now, the photographer is assembling some of his favourite pictures, mounting an exhibition at The Aldeburgh Gallery charting his life capturing some of the world’s leading personalities as they made history during the 70s, 80s and 90s.
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He accompanied Bob Geldof to the Sudan during the Band-Aid campaign, photographed Arnold Schwarzenegger as he confidently claimed his Mr Universe title, caught moments with politicians like Harold Wilson with his pipe, and also framed quiet portraits of rock stars like Sting relaxing at home.
“I suppose I’ve slowed down since the dawn of the 21st century because the nature of journalism has changed,” he reflects, “The world of publishing has got a lot more cost conscious and magazines are no longer willing to fly you right across the at the drop of a hat, but for 30 years I was barely at home.”
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So, what has prompted him to sort through his files now and mount a full-scale retrospective exhibition?
“Lockdown.” Is his succinct reply. “I was at home and I was acutely aware I had this archive that I hadn’t really touched in years. It was all stuffed in my second bedroom. I thought it would be nice to create a book for my children, something to remember me by when I’m gone, and so I started going through years and years worth of pictures, scanning them into a computer, and I thought: ‘maybe other people might like to see these? Maybe there’s an exhibition here?
“So, I approached Margaret Currie at the Aldeburgh Gallery and it took off from there.”
Ian laughs in a self-deprecating manner when he says that his photographic success is completely down to being an academic failure at school. “I failed all my exams at school which was a blessing because otherwise I would now be working in a bank.
“When I left school I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I got a job in a small camera shop that did its own D&P (developing and printing) and did portraits, so I got a job there for £5 a week.
“Gradually I was the only staff member there apart from the owner and so I did everything. I got a book out of the library and leant how to develop and print film. I had always liked photography but I hadn’t printed anything until then.”
Then after a couple of years Ian landed his first job as a press photographer on the Brighton and Hove Herald before moving to Norfolk to work on the EDP for a year before moving to London.
“I had a friend who worked on the Express, so I went to see the editor and showed him my pictures and he said: ‘These are better than many of the ones we use here. I can’t offer you a staff job but if you come to London, I promise you, you won’t starve. So I moved to London.”
He worked for the Daily Express for six months before landing his big break in 1969 capturing some exclusive images outside a besieged Chinese Embassy in London.
“The British Embassy in China had just been sacked by the Chinese and so they had banned all their embassy staff in London from coming outside the building. I had gone there to photograph this policewoman in a new look uniform. I spoke to a policeman out the front and he said: ‘Oh, she’s round the back. So, I went round the back and she wasn’t there. Then, suddenly the back door burst open and all these people came rushing out wielding batons, truncheons and glass bottles and started attacking the police and I got all these marvellous pictures.
“I was working for The Sketch at the time and they sold the pictures all around the world.”
Shortly afterwards Ian went to work for The Observer and in 1976 became People magazine’s contract photographer covering Europe and Africa. “It was quite a patch,” he says. “The Americans had no idea about distances and they would phone up and say can you be in Milan or Venice by lunch-time. It was ridiculous but I went because that’s how they worked. You had absolutely no notice and they would fly you out to places just on the off-chance of getting a picture.”
The trip to Sudan with Bob Geldof in 1984 was one such adventure and something that has stayed with Ian. “They sent me out there late. I flew to Sudan and when I got there I had to find out where he was. Fortunately, he was still at the airport. I walked round the back of an oil tanker and there he was. He looked at me, absolutely astonished, and said in his inimitable way: “Ian, what the **** are you doing here?”
“We knew each other because I had photographed him at home with Paula Yates and so we teamed up and it made the job a lot easier.”
Going back through the pictures has also been a trip down memory lane for him. “There were loads of people I had forgotten I had photographed. I came across pictures I took of Bob Hope. How can you forget photographing Bob Hope but I had – the same with Robert Mitchum and Henry Fonda – but across my career I must have photographed about 6,000 people so you are bound to forget some.
“So, it’s been a wonderful opportunity to refresh my memory.”
Ian Cook: An Exhibition is at the Aldeburgh Gallery, High Street, Aldeburgh from June 17 to 23.