RE-ENACTING THROUGH THE LENS – By Phil Hodges

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Photographs By Russell Cobb.

People are fascinated by re-enacting or more to the point re-enactors.

I often find these days that the people I work with or meet on a day today basis who find out abut my hobby are far more inclined to question me favourably about the subject, often with open mouthed amazement rather than ridicule. The old, predictable “So you dress up and run around playing soldiers” bores me to tears now. My usual retort to the sneering idiots was whilst I was running around playing at soldiers, I also used to get to fire historic firearms, ride atop tanks, drive in (and on) historical military vehicles, sit by a camp fire with mates at night, sleep under the stars and then inevitably do it all again the next day with a hint of massed battles, and once in a lifetime fly pasts. ‘What did you do? Get dragged to Homebase and paint the spare room?”

Nowadays I just laugh at them. It’s easier! With the public firmly accepting the re-enacting fold and pouring through the gates of military shows and events up and down the UK, across Europe and America in their tens of thousands the proof is in the proverbial pudding.

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I know what its like to be behind the wire as it were. On show, on display or in some cases being gawped at by the paying public but 99.9% of the time I’m happy for this because they want to ask questions, and more importantly they want to be educated. In all my years re-enacting I’ve only ever had one unsavoury moment with a member of public. It lasted less than two minutes and the surrounding crowd who had also paid to get in were only too happy to turn on him, ridicule him and carry him off into the sunset, tail (or was it head?) firmly between his legs.

I was curious to talk to someone who had appeared ‘at the wire’ of our display once and see what their initial view was.  Then I decided it would be a rubbish idea so just rang Russell Cobb, an old friend of mine; and asked him what it was like to ‘work’ with re-enactors.

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Russell Cobb is one of these professional arty types we see with cameras thrown around his neck at shows but he’s so modest it makes me sick. You see he’s not your average hobby snapper though, For one he’s not dangerously overweight and he’s not the sort that makes a bee-line for anything ‘vintage’ in a skirt and starts sweating as he shoots! He’s actually much, much more than this but I do like to wind him up. He studied illustration and photography at St.Martin’s School of Art and specialised in illustration. He has worked for so many famous clients there are too many to mention. He has won five Best of British Gold Awards (it’s true I googled it) and today still keeps a hand in the business with agents in London and New York. He also guest lectures at art schools all over Europe to high acclaim and lives a jet-set life. To me he is just Russ, once fifth in line to being my best man at my wedding! (For the record, he gleefully agreed to do the wedding pics!)

Here I let Russell ramble on aimlessly. With only a few words of encouragement accompanied by some of his hand picked photographs to prove he’s not making it all up!

“Back in 2010 I found working alone all day was simply uninspiring. Call it a mid like crisis or an urge for a new creative challenge but I decided to stop painting and return to the camera. The next conundrum was, what to photograph? My father who has always had a barn full of classic and military vehicles had told me about the War and Peace Show in Kent. I avoided the show for years as vehicles have always left me a little cold. However, on a chance visit in 2010 I discovered re-enactors and I felt I was immersed into the middle of a war film. This proved to be the Eureka! moment. The camera enables you to get out and meet people and find yourself in places and situations you would never have imagined. Well that certainly happened to me and re-enactment became a five year project”

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I know we’ve spent years talking about it Russ but what got you interested in the whole war and history thing?

“Probably, like many people of my age, as a child I was saturated with WW2. I grew up playing with soldiers, tanks and Action Men figures. I read war comics and WW2 books and I seemed to have watched every black and white war film ever made. Furthermore my grandfather’s first hand stories of the war and his collection of photographs permeated into my imagination”

As an outsider as you were then, a member of the paying public if I remember rightly, what pushed you into making the first initial leap?

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“In the beginning the most difficult part was approaching the wire and asking to take a photo. Re-enactors; take note, a crowd of mean looking unshaven men standing with guns can be quite intimidating. The negative BBC documentary in 2008 made things a lot harder, too. I didn’t know about it at the time, but I sensed a lot of the groups portraying Germans were wary of the lens. But what slowly unwrapped was, on the whole, a friendly face and a cup of tea”

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“Fast forward five years and I’ve started to realise what it’s all about. Those early childhood influences have resulted in me trying to recapture those nostalgic and heroic feelings I had. In a way I see my pictures as cinematic moments frozen in time. When lecturing at art schools I often use the analogy of film, actors and stage sets. The re-enactors (actors) are on the whole fantastic. However the stage set and location can be appalling. A sea of portaloos and burger vans can ruin the moment. Crowds, bright sun and if I dare say, constructed ‘buildings’ that look like they have come from the set of a nativity play”

“I avoid trying to replicate the look and feel of original war time photos, I understand it, but cannot see the point. My art school background comes from the perspective it’s all about creating something different and new. There are lots of great re-enactor photographers replicating WW2 style photographs anyway. Back in my studio the editing process is ruthless. In old money I choose one shot in approximately every 36 (like roll of film). In post-production I can then spend hours on each photograph, bringing in my painting expertise, painting into shadows and highlights. Again I stick to a purist attitude of 35 mm photography, meaning I never crop, add or subtract from the composition (a nod towards the great Magnum wartime photographers).

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This can result in moments of personal despair in my edit, a great shot ruined by a re-enactor laughing, a white van in the shot, a digital watch, an iPhone (I’m Guilty – Phil) the list goes on. People in the creative business tell me to photograph re-enactors next to ice cream vans. It would probably sell as a photo essay, but I feel it’s a cheap shot and its not what I’m about”

Having been photographed myself, I certainly appreciate your views, Russ, as I’m sure hundreds of other re-enactors will, too. You can stand idle for hours staring into the abyss whilst in uniform and character, as soon as you answer that call on your mobile from a mate whose lost and asking assistance to get to a show or someone hands you a can of cold Coke in the heat of the July sun everyone with a camera within a half mile seems to be alerted and snaps cheerfully away. It can be frustrating, but I guess we’re all inured to it now.

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What have you got planned next, mate?

“To be honest I’m looking forward to slowing down a bit with more set up photo shoots. Its exciting when everything is right, re-enactors, a great location and the luxury of time where I catch myself in a moment where I could be there,in a field in Normandy for example.”

As for the end product I think it would be nice to compile the photos into a book and exhibition. I hope one day my efforts will provide a nice memory and documentation of the re-enactment scene. I think I’ll carry on, maybe like a re-enactor I’m an obsessive perfectionist. I’ve plans to bring back the drawing as well and I’ve studied war artists too, so don’t be surprised if you see me with a sketchbook next time”

Cheers Russell. Greatly appreciated, mate, and for the record I’ve NEVER made you a cup of Tea!

You can see more of Russell’s work at www.cobbphoto.com