The Tibetan Cowboy

As featured  in England’s West Country Life magazine and the Western Daily Press…

Award-winning travel photographer Barry Cawston from Axbridge in Somerset presented his star photographic fine art piece Tibetan Cowboy on BBC2’s recent debut Show Me The Monet, a show produced in a similar style to the channel’s entrepreneurial series Dragon’s Den, but for artists. The show has proved very popular up and down the country and it is no surprise, when you consider that as many as 5 million people in Britain alone immerse themselves in some kind of art, such as photography, painting or sculpture.

Show Me The Monet has produced a fascinating mix of artists, often from entirely different professional backgrounds. The series ranges from sculptors, to arts students, mothers, teachers, engineers and even a ballet dancer. The list goes on, but this diverse group are all bringing their own individual twist to the art world. The general trend has been of artists that are indeed new to the field, have taken a shining to the hobby after a sudden career change or are simply seeking some kind of lifestyle enrichment or recognition for their work. To gain this privilege, artists faced the show’s ‘Hanging Committee’ to gain a prestigious place at the London Royal College of Art show where they were to display and sell their works to the highest bidder. The criteria for success are based upon three factors: originality, technique and emotional power.

The Tibetan Cowboy 2011 by Barry Cawston

Barry Cawston is no novice, however. He has been heavily involved in the fine art photography industry for over 20 years. He brought his fine art photograph entitled Tibetan Cowboy to the BBC’s ‘Hanging Committee’ and upon seeing this photograph, I admittedly found it immediately captivating and a deserved art work in itself. The story goes that whilst travelling in China, Barry reached the border of Tibet and decided to take a taxi to find a different perspective for his prize shot, when he stumbled upon a reservoir. Initially capturing the architecture adjacent to the reservoir with the water as his backdrop, the final jigsaw-piece to Barry’s composition came to him unexpectedly when a Tibetan gentleman from a village 10 miles away co-incidentally walked around the corner as he was about to press the shutter button; Barry grasped this opportunity and asked him to pose for the photograph: this cowboy stands in the foreground, as if introducing his land to the audience. The photograph is inviting and the touch of civilisation the Tibetan native brings to this actually adds a touch of magic to the piece. It is as if he is saying “Welcome to my world”. I am eager to find out more. Barry explains that the atmospheric conditions of the high altitude at the time bring sharpness and clarity to the shot, whilst the show’s judging panel said that the photograph “oozes sophistication” and I have to agree that it speaks of quality. The composition of Tibetan Cowboy alone evidences Barry’s professionalism and it is simply a joy to look at. The piece sold at the Royal College of Art for £1350. Not only that, but some international exhibitors from Paris approached Barry that very same evening and showed a keen interest in working with him on the continent.

Based in Somerset, Barry’s portfolio ranges from people of all ages and places, to landscapes and architecture, to nature and all are created with that added mystic twist of intrigue. His mountainous landscapes encompass diagonals in compositional terms and spatial division, whilst his wispy water scenes are second to none. The choice of palette in all his pieces is one that is smooth, pleasant and agreeable.

Barry’s darkroom studio and gallery are hidden away in a Tudor Town house that hangs out over the high street in a small village in the Mendip Hills of Somerset. Built in 1450 the building and garden retain an amazing historical feel. He grows his own vegetables and fruit in a small walled garden at the back of the house. It is also here where he does most of his printing and framing. The photographer explains “It’s incredibly convenient. My freelance work and the gallery also take me to London a lot, which gives me an important urban fix. I was lucky enough to have two weeks in New York last month doing an art fair which was a real treat.”

As I take a sip of my Somerset cider and nibble on a sharp, tangy piece of cheddar Barry has offered me at the ornately carved oak table, so typical of Tudor-style living rooms in this county which is steeped in rich farming history; I delve into Barry’s portfolio. His series Shadows and Corners reveals an authentic livresque photograph. The aged, tattered books have so much character, they tell a story without being opened.

Barry, tell me about your fateful encounter with the Tibetan cowboy: did you have a conversation?

We didn’t have an actual conversation. It really was all sign language. I was probably also looking out of place with a wooden old-looking camera on a tripod. The fact that the camera was already in position made it easy to ‘ask’ if he would mind being in the picture.  As for posing, he did that naturally only tilting his hat to show his face a little more. It was an unusual stance but one that he makes seem quite natural. The interaction was brief. I took just two frames and then he wandered on his way. The camera really seems to help break down any communication barriers, mainly because of its antique look and people seem to take pride from having their picture taken as a portrait rather than as a photo-journalistic
reportage image. They tend to ‘strike a pose’ if you like.

Do you generally take documentary-style photographs or was this part of the co-incidence? No. I think a lot of my work has a social element but the wild card element was his appearance and this really made the picture. I did a Sociology Degree and love using photography to investigate the world around me but also that is the specific joy of photography: the random elements coming together.

What brought you to China?
I was lucky to win the British Journal of Photography and Nikon Endframe award which gave me a bursary to do a ‘Dream Project’ in this case follow the The Yangtze – The River of Tears.

Where else have you travelled?
I first got into photography hitch hiking around the USA in 1984 but had my camera and film stolen. I then bought a Canon 35mm to take to India two years later. I have also been to Japan and Vietnam.

What inspires you most when you are travelling?
I think what I love the most is the way that one’s pre-conceptions go 3D as firsthand experience gives you insights into cultural differences.

Who are the most inspiring individuals you have met?
Robert Pasley-Tyler is a very inspiring individual due to his personal quest with the Amazonian Charitable Trust to help protect huge swathes of Brazilian jungle. Tough and fair, he is fighting a very strong campaign to highlight the importance of conservation projects and their social and financial benefits to the wider community.

Which type of photographs do you enjoy taking most?
I love the craft involved in photography, processing in the darkroom and nowadays editing in Photoshop. I enjoy photographing all aspects of the world around me though the excitement of a foreign trip always wakens my soul. There are also certain pictures that one can feel have something special when I cross my fingers and pray that they will come out when the film is processed. That is very energising.

Have you learnt any foreign languages on your travels?

I tend to pick up a few words to help get by when I am travelling I tend to be quite solitary and concentrated. Interactions tend to come through the camera rather than any social engagement. Sometimes a meeting can still be ‘beautiful’ and poignant, like meeting the Tibetan Cowboy. It was quite an extraordinary meeting, even though we could not speak to each other due to the language barrier.

Your Italy and Cuba series contains an intriguing shot called “Books, Napoli”, capturing piles upon piles of books thrown in a corner of an ancient building. What is the story behind this one?

This picture has sold out in all three print sizes and the last of the prints in the edition of 15 of the 4ft x 3ft size went for £3000. It has something that is clearly very intriguing. I took it in an old Palazza near Napoli which had been abandoned for forty years. It had been used to store some government records over twenty years before. These had tumbled to the ground over time and created a scene that almost looked like an art installation. In actual fact, all the rooms were extraordinary.

Your art-work ‘Tube Tunnel’ from your portfolio ‘Scenes from a Concrete Jungle’ fascinating and the glittering light trails against the black background look superb. Tell me about the making of it.

This image was taken on the front of an unmanned underground train in Shanghai. I was looking for an image to sum up my feelings about my trip to China and the country as a whole and thought that this looked like a multi-coloured black hole or an image from Star Trek. It represents to me how China is taking the world on a journey, careering into the future at an accelerating pace. The outcome is uncertain.

Xixiau Girl The Amazon 20x24" print £425

In your ‘Heart of the Amazon’ collection, is the child holding an Armadillo?

It is actually her pet tortoise.

Tell me about your experience in the Amazonian jungle.

Six foot giant otters, millions of Mosquitoes, 20ft crocodiles, one called Lucifer, tarantulas, spiders – all a bit of an assault on the psyche, but just amazing to see so many trees. The water level rises 10 metres in winter so all of the jungle is flooded. The jungle acts as a huge water filter and one can see at that scale how the trees are the lungs of the world.

What do you enjoy most about meeting native tribes and such?

I had hoped to meet some native tribes in the Amazon but the village Xixiau was a village of 200 that though located in the heart of the jungle was not in the tribal areas, which are restricted areas. The inhabitants were Amazonian Brazilians who were still living in a very basic and amazing way but were very much engaged with the outside world. They knew the importance of their place in the environmental politics of the region. They were living a very simple life but had internet and television for example. Some had returned to their homelands after escaping from a life in the gangs of the Favela’s in Rio de Janeiro. The experience was enlightening and intense but a distance from Bruce Parry’s ‘The Tribe’. I have a chance to return and would love to go into the protected areas so it is a possibility for the future.

Tell me about ‘Blue Drapes in Rio’. The building’s border is very veil-like because of the floating drapes. They add a touch of mystery and dress the building delicately.

Blue Drapes was taken because it reminded me of a Christo installation. If you look closely you can see that the building is being repainted so the drapes are simply there for protection but the colours make it look poetic. Quite often I have taken pictures because they have reminded me of a painting or a painter’s style. Hockney and Edward Hopper have definitely influenced me for example.

Your piece ‘Clown, Hackney Empire’ strikes me as strange and eerie: was it your intention to evoke this feeling in the viewer?

Yes. Clowns can be really scary and seem to live in the subconscious, waiting there to play tricks on you.

At the Royal College of Art exhibit, you impressed a global audience and made an international sale. Tell me more.

I have sold work to collectors in the UK, France, Germany and the United States and I have just sold a print of the Tibetan Cowboy to someone who watched‘Show me the Monet’ in Singapore.
What are your upcoming projects?

The next exhibition I am doing is sponsored by one of my framers Latent Light and the Drugstore Gallery and will be of two enormous photographic prints 20 ft x 4 ft mounted on acrylic. The images are of last year’s 40th anniversary Glastonbury Festival. They are going to be hung in the Dance Field at this year’s event. The pictures are amazingly detailed and people can spot themselves or their tents even on the other side of the valley. It is going to be a random and fun thing to do and hopefully I will be able to take a couple more.

Where are you next destined?
I am going to travel around the UK with my family over the summer but am looking forward to a trip with fellow photographer James Sparshatt to Peru later on in the year – a dream trip.

What can fans of your work expect to see from you in the future?
I hope to do some work for UNESCO at their world heritage sites and would love to have an exhibition in London of some of the prints.


Together with his partner Soraya Schofield, Barry set up a site called The Drugstore Gallery –– which has exhibited at the Affordable Art Fairs in London, Bristol and Paris as well as the Northern and Edinburgh Art Fairs. You can also view Barry’s fine art photography

Golden Stairway. Brazil 91 x 72cm edition 0f 15 £1150 mounted on aluminium

Fengdu Ghost Town. China 91x 72cm edition of 15 £1150 mounted on aluminium

To view this article in the Printed Press click here: The Tibetan Cowboy

© The Culture Cave 2011. All rights reserved

Similar Posts

Leave a Comment