top of page


September 13, 2023


Photography by Russell Cobb
Introduction by Melanie Meggs
Interview by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico

There is something captivating about a person who can weave together art and history in a way that captures the essence of the past. Russell Cobb is one such artist whose photography offers a unique perspective on history and culture. Through his lens, viewers can enter into a world of time travelers, actors, and re-enactors - a world of nostalgia and romance.

Russell studied photography and illustration at Central Saint Martin's School of Art in London and in Switzerland, having an early interest in how the two disciplines could feed into each other. After graduating, he received many industry awards, including 5 Best of British Gold Awards and D&AD’s, with The Independent newspaper voting him one of Britain's top ten Illustrators in 2003. He has also served as the Chairman of the Association of Illustrators UK for four years.

In his early formative years, Russell was inspired by a quote from Berenice Abbott about the French photographer Eugène Atget: "To Atget the visible world became the stage; man, himself and the effects of man the great drama." This quote reflects Russell's approach to photography which focuses on portraiture and storytelling. And, at the core of his work is his imagination, painting and drawing skills. He aims to capture people's eccentricities and obsessions, as well as their world of escapism. To achieve this, he often works on location with an assistant and lighting at hand, with the goal of capturing cinematic moments frozen in time.

Russell has worked on several long-term projects, including a seven year photo essay on WW2 re-enactment. Russell camped with the re-enactment groups and took part in battles as a war press photographer. His passion for storytelling and painting brought the images to life, blurring the line between reality and imagination as both the photographer and subject act out moments from history or films. This body of work culminated in an exhibition of 100 large-scale prints in 2017 called Axis and Allies.

In 2017, the Duke of Richmond saw Russell’s work and asked him to embark on a project documenting the people attending Goodwood Revival, one of the world’s largest vintage motoring events. As an event that celebrates historic dress, it became the perfect hunting ground for Russell’s work.

Russell Cobb is an incredible photographer and storyteller who offers viewers a chance to step into the past and explore the nuances of culture and history. Join us as we explore what he has uncovered as we spend time immersed in the worlds of today's re-enactors, and how these stories come to life through his lens.

“My work is always a collaboration and a creative exchange of ideas. I’ve come to realize there’s always been a notion of play and imagination that comes from childhood. It's an immersive experience, somewhat an escapism from the real world.”


THE PICTORIAL LIST: Hello Russell, thank you for the opportunity to discover more insight into your process of creating the visual stories that captivate the viewer while transporting them to a different era, or time and place in history. Welcome to the Pictorial List. Please tell us a little about yourself, where are you from, and where are you based now? What were some significant choices you made along the way to land on home base?

RC: I was born in Letchworth Garden City in the United Kingdom. At school I was the child that was top of the class in art and always knew creativity was a path for me. I ended up at Central Saint Martin's School of Art in London with a master's degree. In my formative years I spent pockets of time studying and living in Luzern, Switzerland and, also worked in church restoration in Italy. Drawing and painting eventually became my main focus.

My illustration work won many awards, amongst others 5 Best of British Gold. In 2007, I was named by the Independent Newspaper as one of the top 10 illustrators working in the United Kingdom. However, the pull to photography was always calling me and, in 2008 I started the transition by working on my first long term project.

After living in London for 15 years I moved to the south of England near Midhurst in the South Downs. I’ve guest lectured at many educational establishments throughout Europe and currently I am an Associate Lecturer at Solent University.

TPL: Tell us more about your beginning as an illustrator and the skills you honed working in this industry. How has it contributed to the way you see through the lens? What first drew you to photography, explain the importance of photography in helping develop your narrative in your visual stories?

RC: At art school the departments overlapped, we were always taught that a brush, a pen and a camera were just tools for relaying one's personal vision. Imagination and ideas have always been my key driver. Working as an illustrator you are always in a world lost in your imagination, observing, brainstorming, developing ideas and drawing in a sketchbook. I use these skills in photography, always planning, drawing and thinking about what I’m going to do. A lifetime of drawing and painting has assisted my understanding of light and composition, they are elements that come naturally to me.

TPL: After you have your conceptual vision, how do you translate your ideas into photography? Talk us through how you create the narrative, what journey are you taking us on?

RC: As a child I immediately realized the camera was a tool for capturing memories. In later years its the immediacy that’s always drawn me to photography, a split second, a moment of magic when all the pieces fall together in the viewfinder. I always refer to painting and illustration as ’slow cooking’, it was something that frustrated me as things only take shape over a number of days or weeks.

My photography postproduction stage stems back to the darkroom and is mainly a matter of dodge and burn, to me the process is so similar to drawing. One of the biggest compliments I get is when someone tells me the photograph looks like a painting.

TPL: How have you grown as an artist, visually and intellectually?

RC: After some years I started to become more of a storyteller and became fascinated by the people I photographed and their stories. In the beginning with the WW2 re-enactors body of work I only saw uniforms and guns. Then it slowly grew into a more potent conceptual theme therefore I’ve learnt to dig a bit deeper. In this example it became a body of work about a generation who had grown up on a diet of nostalgic war films, WW2 comics and toys. A world of popular culture that played on notions of nostalgia and heroism.

TPL: Where would you say your curiosity for people comes from? Does your curiosity for people come from a historical context, or do you still find models that contribute to the work, creating unique personas in the characters you portray?

RC: I’m not too sure where my curiosity comes from, but I know I’ve always been a person who’s had that artistic trait of being on the outside looking in. If I’m at a football match, I often find myself forgetting about the game and start observing the crowd. I always remember Cartier Bresson training his camera on the crowd during the Queen's coronation.

My curiosity simply starts from just walking into a setting and observing the people portraying a historical context in front of me. The first time I was at a WW2 re-enactment I remember the shock of feeling I was suddenly in a war film or perhaps the real moment of history. So quite often the location and the characters are somewhat ready to perform. Quite often my only problem is getting people to step out of their historical character.

TPL: History plays an intricate part in your photography. Share with us the process of discovery, the research you do that sets the stage for your stories to unfold. Has history always been an inspiration? Do you get lost in the story before you create the visual?

RC: I’ve worked on location at historical re-enactment events for over a decade, so much is done behind the scenes. When I first arrive at an event, I first scout the area for location backdrops, and I also look for the great faces. I’m like a big bird circling above, then next step is a conversation and a meet and greet. I’ve also spent many a night making lists and notes and ideas in a tent under torch light. After that there’s no planning, I work the moment keeping the door open to unexpected ideas and scenarios. Over planning is dangerous, I like to leave lots of room for the planned and unexpected.

A passion for history has always been a huge inspiration in my work. So, I guess I’m taking people on a time travel journey, asking them to look at this unusual world of re-creation taking place.

TPL: Talk to us about your method and experimentation before the final images in your project. Did you know how you wanted the project to look? How long does each image usually take to create?

RC: A lot of re-enactors refer to re-enactment as Living History, so the method and game is to turn the location into somewhat of an accurate historical scene and capture an historical moment frozen in time. Historical films are an ever-present influence, hence the reference to creating cinematic moments.

Over the years I’ve used the technique of shooting low, wide and close. In doing this I'm editing out all the distractions, crowds and objects of modernity such as ice cream and burger vans. Photographing Roman soldiers eating hot dogs has always been suggested, but I feel it undermines their trust and it's not the joint journey we are on.

I always have to work very fast; I work digitally but I often say, “in old money I’m going to shoot two rolls of film. It's so strange there’s always just one photo in every 36 shots that hit the sweet spot. Editing and postproduction is the slowest part of my process.

TPL: We all face challenges and obstacles we could not have foreseen, what are some of yours, and how did you overcome them? What advice would you share?

RC: I’m very good at the imagination art side of things but awful on the technical side. Off camera lighting was my biggest challenge, so it was just years of practice and a lot of trial and error. My advice here would be to understand and learn your kit inside and out. Otherwise, it completely distracts from the engagement with models and taking pictures. I use Leicas now, I enjoy their paired down simplicity. I also use a one light set up, keeping things simple. I just don’t have time for complicated setups.

Access and gaining people's trust is always a challenge. I think being prepared to play the long game has been a real positive. Lots of my photographs are the result of getting to know people really well and forging friendships over a number of years.

Being obsessive and loving what you do is something I always talk to students about. Immersing yourself into the subject is a good thing too. For my WW2 project I wasn’t comfortable wearing a WW2 German uniform, but it opened so many doors and brought me a lot of respect.

Learn and understand your strengths and weaknesses. War photography was my early obsession, but I learnt it's not in my makeup, so I found another safer way via re-enactment, somehow, I did it. I’m not comfortable as a street photographer, the hunting smash and grab element. I guess I’ll admit to having the sensitive artist gene who avoids avoid confrontation.

TPL: Do you have any favorite artists or photographers you would like to share with us, and the reason for their significance? If you could work alongside someone, who would you like to rub elbows with, learn from?

RC: I find myself looking at a lot of fashion photography a lot. Photographer Jack Davison caught my eye. I just like his fusion of commercial, fashion, surrealism, playfulness and art.

I love the work of Brian Duffy, if I could go back in time, I’d spend a week with him. He was always re-inventing himself and at the height of his career he put down his camera and never took another picture. I did a similar thing for quite a while, when I put down my paint brushes and picked up a camera.

Perhaps a day with Alex Webb if it was in a place saturated with colour.

TPL: Your diligence for the accuracy of every detail takes many hours, how do you balance photography, work and life?

RC: Work and life all seem to blend into one. I’m happy that creativity is an immersive lifestyle thing. After university I worked on a building site, I just saw this as lost creative time. I never switch off, my sons know that moment when on holiday or when I stop the car, I get that look in my eye and happily vanish for an hour.

TPL: Are there any special projects that you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about? What are some of your photography goals? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?

RC: I think my current project for Goodwood Revival is ever present in my thoughts now, its spun off the WW2 project. Slowly it grew into a broader concept that ‘there’s an actor in everyone’. Its documenting people from all walks of life who love to dress up and transform themselves into an alternate persona. Again, there’s notions of escapism and British eccentricity.

My goal is always to challenge myself and find myself in an unexpected place. Over the years I’ve caught myself over the years asking myself how did I get here? Such as on the battlefield in a German armored vehicle, sitting around a campfire with Viking warriors. So perhaps more of the unexpected, I’m always hoping to get that unusual invitation. More fashion is a goal, and something that involves travel too.

TPL: If you could explore another area of photography or art, what would that be? Why, what is it that you would be inspired to learn?

RC: As mentioned, I've always been in love with fashion photography, another guise of transformation and dressing up. I think some of the most exciting work has been there. Somehow, I’ve subconsciously been photographing re-enactors with a fashion inspired twist into the mix. Perhaps working on film sets would be a natural fit.

Through Russell Cobb’s photography, we are able to gain a unique perspective on both history and culture as he blurs the line between reality and imagination. His passion for storytelling and painting shine through in his work, allowing viewers to step into the past and explore what he has uncovered. We hope you will join us as we continue to explore Russell’s photography and invite you to make your own journey and discover his enchanting world. To see more of Russell’s work, visit his website and Instagram gallery today.

read more
interviews >>>

bottom of page