Michael Cowen has loved all forms of photography since he first picked up a Minolta SLR camera in the late 1980s. In this interview, which is a prelude to Michael's full interview which will be published in the next issue of the Excio Journal, we discover how an assemblage of circumstances pushed Michael towards abstract landscape photography.

By Michael Cowen

Why do you love abstract photography?

I’d argue that we do not choose one genre of photography over another, but instead, an assemblage of circumstances chooses us.  I live in the United Arab Emirates, and here there are very stringent rules around privacy; therefore, both street photography and architectural photography are not without risk. So, accepting that not every country or culture treats photography similarly, resulted in me gravitating toward landscape photography. Given that we generally photograph what is local to us, then I have been “constrained” to the desert landscape. Back in 2016, when I returned to photography in earnest, my desert landscapes were very realist and natural; however, over time and with the influences of abstract expressionists and minimalist photographers such as Michael Kenna or Bruce Percy, there has been a gradual move towards the abstract photograph, a gradual move toward capturing the “essence” of the mysterious desert dune.

By Michael Cowen

How do you find creative and interesting angles?

This is an extremely important question for all photographers and artists, no matter the subject matter. In my 2021 series, ‘Elevated Abstracts’, there were two aspects that I thought about – form and light. Desert dunes are tremendously beautiful subjects calling out to be photographed; however, from a standard eye-level perspective – the dune image has become quite common, almost cliché. So, I experimented with drone photography to remove the depth of the typical desertscape and flatten the image. However, there is a need to compensate for this flattening, which is where light plays an essential role. Sunrises and sunsets are very short in the desert, and it takes only a brief moment for the sun to rise high in the sky and remove all shadows from the scene, so the 30-60 minutes in and around sunrise and sunset are crucial. In this particular series, I deliberately removed the colour from the scene and imposed a monotone on the print (this is not the case for all my work). The effect of this process was to create artistic photographs, that once printed, appear more like pencil sketches than photographs. When the viewer approaches a print on the wall and exclaims in disbelief, “Oh, is this a photograph?” that comment is the highest form of compliment for this kind of work. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not attempting to elevate photography to art – it already has this status – one only needs to go to an art gallery to see this. The name elevated in Elevated Abstracts has a double meaning – elevated in terms of perspective; but also elevated in terms of this almost philosophical quest for the search for essence.

By Michael Cowen

What planning stages do you go through before the photo is taken?

The desert is naturally changing its form daily with the wind so unlike other forms of landscape photography where the use of planning apps, maps, weather programmes, etc. are quite beneficial; going to the desert is merely a matter of driving as far as it is safe to do so, parking the car; grabbing your camera pack, water, and snacks, and walking. It is as simple as that.  Generally, the summer months are not the optimum times to go into the desert with temperatures in excess of 50oC, in often cloudless skies; but we still get 6-8 months of the year where photography trips to the desert are most enjoyable. In terms of composition planning, again, there is no planning required – just walking and observing. I often joke, you only need to drop the camera, and if the shutter fires, you will have a great photo. That said, sand and wind can be an absolute nightmare for changing lenses in the field!

Like hearing how Michael creates his images? His full interview will be published in the next issue of Excio Journal. Until then, you can check out his work at excio.gallery/michaelcowen.

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