We are pleased to introduce you to our Manc of the Month for July, Lee Cooper. Lee is a brilliant photographer in Manchester, and you might recognize his work from many of the Cotton On MCR events he has taken part in, from our Art All Dayers to our local exhibitions. We are so happy to have Lee share with us insights about his life and art, read on to find out more about this amazing creative!
COM: Please introduce yourself to the Cotton On MCR readers.
Lee Cooper: My name is Lee Cooper, I’m 32, and I’m a photographer from here in Manchester. I’ve lived in Manchester my whole life with spells of travelling to Europe and the USA, and I’m relatively new to photography after only starting it two years ago. I love storytelling and try to capture moments in my photographs that tell a narrative or evoke emotions; street photography is great for finding little human moments if you have the eye and the patience. It’s been an incredible time of late watching Manchester develop and change at a lightning pace. Every week there is a building coming down and one going up somewhere in the city. I sometimes feel like a fraud calling myself an artist because I’ve had no training and started photography as a hobby, but I have developed a style and produced work that people have paid to hang on their walls. So it’s art, I guess! If I had to describe my style, I would say I like to photograph people from afar where they look small against a backdrop of big buildings. It’s a simple style, and my eye is keen to spot these shots now. I like to produce work that is more classical photography that relies on natural light over a comprehensive post-edit.
I think the negative thoughts about myself and my work stems from the fact that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). My recovery journey has coincided with my photography journey and it has probably kept me sane for the past couple of years. CSA shatters a young person’s self-esteem and self-image and gives them maladaptive coping mechanisms that don’t mesh well with adult life, so I have been trying to rebuild and heal while developing my photography. It’s been an arduous yet exciting journey. I’ve met many new people I would never have come into contact with on my previous path. Domino and Cotton On MCR are one of them! I mention this aspect of my life because CSA is a conversation society isn’t ready to have yet; as a collective, we like to pretend it doesn’t exist, but it does happen and happens closer to home than you imagine. Its effects are devastating yet often joked about, which isn’t conductive for people speaking out and allows abuse to continue under the radar. I want to give a shout-out to Survivors Manchester, a fantastic charity whose services I use to great benefit.
As I said, these journeys have coincided with each other, making me feel I’m finally walking the path I want to walk in life, which is an exciting feeling! In the future, I would like to do more exhibitions, develop my style as I build on my technical capabilities, and create a body of work that I can be proud of. I would also like to meet more photographers; Manchester has such an incredible pool of talent that never meets up with each other or work together, which I think is a great shame and should change now that the pandemic is over. It is over, right?
COM: We have worked together a lot at our events, at the Art All Dayer, at In Manchester exhibition, One Night in Moda, what have you taken from being part of so many events?
LC: First, I would like to say thank you for these opportunities; they have been a blast! I’ve taken quite a lot from these experiences; the Art All-Dayer was a steep learning curve in terms of selling my work; there is so much that goes into a stall that it can be quite daunting if you’ve never done it before and don’t quite know where to start. Besides the selling, it’s a boost seeing people appreciate your work in person and hearing all the lovely words they have to say. Since Instagram changed the way it works recently, there isn’t a photography community online as such now, so to see your work being enjoyed makes it all feel worthwhile.
The ‘In Manchester’ event was my second exhibition and the first in which my work sold (again, a very nice boost). I also did an artist talk after you made the offer; this was way out of my comfort zone because I’ve never done any form of public speaking. It went well and was a great experience; I didn’t spontaneously combust up there! It was great to also hear from the other local artists and listen to them talk about their work and inspirations. One Night in Moda was also fantastic, another opportunity to speak to other artists and the residents of the building and hear their take on art and life in general. All the events have been a great success, and it’s been good to get my work into the ‘real world’ instead of it all being online. I’m very much looking forward to doing more!
COM: What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos?
LC: When I first started photography, it was lockdowns or working from home, so the city centre was deserted, and I could only take photographs of buildings. So, the one thing I wish I knew was the importance of having people in my shots; they are the key ingredient if you want to tell a story with a photograph. I believe they are the difference between making art and just taking a photo. Although, that’s not strictly true, as my favourite shot in a moment will show. When people were finally back on the menu (yum!) I was very apprehensive about taking pictures of them, it was very nerve-wracking just pointing my camera at someone, and God forbid they looked at me and saw me taking a shot! But, like most things, that fear disappears with practice, and now I love taking pictures of people, although I never invade people’s space or share a shot that might embarrass a person. I also wish I knew the importance of light, my first shots did not incorporate light very well, if at all.
COM: When it comes to editing, you have a very distinct style. How long would you guess you spend on average editing a photo?
LC: It depends; some I barely edit at all, and I can spend up to an hour editing other shots if I think it’s worth the time. My photographs are simple in a sense; they are of a more classic style. Some photographers go to town with their edits, but I like to keep mine looking natural. I do most of my editing in Lightroom, mainly just adding radial filters and adjusting things only slightly; exposure, contrast, highlights, etc. I dislike drastically altering colours or adding something like fake fog to my shots. As I learn more, I would perhaps change my style, but I doubt I will change it too much. Like most things in life as you get older, the problem with editing is finding the time. I have had to learn the editing process on the fly the same way I have learnt about photography. It’s a constant case of trial and error.
COM: What is a day in the life of Lee Cooper like?
LC: Frustrating as hell at the moment! I am stuck in low-paid dead-end work and do my photography as and when possible. But a typical day begins at 6:30am with meditation and sometimes a run. I have the same breakfast daily of eggs and a banana + peanut butter smoothie. Then depending on when I start work, I will edit photographs or go out shooting, do some planning and writing, and work on my website. I try to get to the gym four or five times a week. I like to stay in shape, and the gym is a good outlet for stress. I used to enjoy going to the cinema, but it always feels like wasted time these days with the quality of movies coming out. I spend time with my friends at the weekend, typical things. It’s hard to get a photography career off the ground, it feels like I’m doing the work of three or four people sometimes, and life feels like a constant grind! I enjoy it, though, for the most part.
COM: What advice do you have for a new photographers who is just starting out?
LC: My biggest and most important piece of advice would be don’t wait until you are 30 like I did! If you are interested in photography, buy a camera or use your phone and get out there. It can seem a little daunting if you have literally no clue what you’re doing, my first camera was a Nikon Coolpix B500, and I didn’t know the difference between a bridge camera and a DSLR. I have had no formal education on the craft and have learnt everything myself through trial and error. We live in the Information Age, so all you need to do is get on YouTube (I like Pierre T. Lambert & Jason Vong) and read books like The Photographer’s Bible and Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs. I would recommend learning the importance of light and framing of shots; when I first started, I would go out at any time of the day and click and shoot at buildings. These types of photos don’t evoke feelings or emotion in people; they don’t tell a story. My other important advice is simply to enjoy yourself; it can feel like everything is a competition and you’re not good enough. When I think this, I like to remember a line from my favourite poem Desiderata: “if you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” Comparison is a pitfall best avoided, just enjoy the process because photography will make you look at the world in a different way. I still have an awful lot to learn myself; at the moment, I’m trying to learn more about aperture to take my shots to the next level.
COM: You’ve shot in a wide variety of locations, which has been your favourite?
LC: New York, without a doubt, I went there last month on a trip around the states, and it was a bit of a dream come true. New York is a street photographer’s heaven. There is a scene or moment to be captured anywhere you look, plus the bonus backdrop of all its skyscrapers and famous buildings. In Manchester, you often have to really look for these moments; in New York, they are everywhere. I also enjoyed shooting on the road over in the States, Americana fascinates me, so it was nice to get out into the desert and shoot some of that myself. I am planning a project that I wanted to do this year but will likely be next year now that is Americana based and will hopefully produce a photography book. Watch this space!
COM: Is there a piece of your work that is your favourite/you are most proud of?
LC: I have two; the one recently featured in your In Manchester exhibition and sold on the opening night ‘It’s Grim Up North’ and another one I took last year that I titled ‘It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot’
‘It’s Grim Up North’ (above, taken in January 2021) I think sums up how Manchester can feel sometimes. The new and old architecture of Manchester is something I like to incorporate into my work as much as I can, and this is a perfect example of it in action. So many people have mistaken this for a painting, but it’s just a very atmospheric shot. It’s also a tremendously lucky shot; the fog started to lift off the towers as I walked past on the way to work, and this was the result. Referring to my editing process, this is the type of shot I will spend a while editing to maximise its potential.
I took ‘It’s Dark and Hell is Hot’ in September 2021 in Eccles on another beautiful day. I have an eye for the dystopian side of life, and this one struck a chord with a lot of people. The title comes from a DMX album and compliments the vibe of this shot very well. I posted this shot on Reddit with the title ‘All Workers Will Enjoy a 30 Minute Break’, and it was one of my most popular posts to date. The top comment there was, “The year is 2050. Mcdonald’s is the only safe haven left on earth”…The other thing I like about both of these shots is that they were totally unplanned, the first one I was walking to work and the second one I was at West One Retail Park going to the gym, so they highlight the importance of taking your camera with you everywhere because you never know what you’re going to see!
COM: If you could live in one piece of artwork, which would it be?
LC: Nighthawks by Edward Hopper and I kind of have lived in this artwork. I used to be the Night Porter at the Abel Heywood which is a beautiful pub/hotel in the Northern Quarter, it very much has the vibe of the diner in Nighthawks and if anyone walked past in the middle of the night they would have seen me through the windows on my own in the bar. Edward Hopper is a big influence of my work and I always get a kick when a stranger says this is like a Hopper painting. It recently happened with a picture I took of the oldest McDonalds in the world in Downey, CA with a person saying it should be called McNightHawks!’