‘Walnut‘ from the series Fruits of the Earth
After taking early retirement as the head of art at Norton College, the Lancashire-born, Terrington-based Julie Cowdy retrained as a ‘house doctor’, breathing new life into a property. Capturing images of her portfolio of redesigned properties, Cowdy’s interest in photography began to develop.
Following the 2008 financial crisis, Cowdy and her husband closed their respective businesses and focused on renovating an old manor house near Beaumont-de-Lomagne, southwest France. Cowdy used photography to document the project and has honed her craft ever since.
In November 2020 the fine art photographer gained her Associate Distinction with the series Fruits of the Earth. The project subsequently scooped a silver medal in the portfolio category of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Botanical Art and Photography Show in September 2021, where it was displayed at the Saatchi Gallery to complement the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
Here, Cowdy explains how she brought Fruits of the Earth to life.
‘Garlic‘ from the series Fruits of the Earth
“By 2017 I’d tried many types of photography but I didn’t have a defined style. I’d lost my mojo and thought about giving photography up. But my husband highlighted that I’m most creative when combining art with photography, so I started shooting my drawings and superimposing them on images using Photoshop – like a form of layered composite photography.
“This creative process felt really special and I pursued it further with my 2018 new year’s resolutions. I set myself three challenges: to complete an online photography course; to hold a solo exhibition (which I held at Helmsley Arts Centre that March); and to achieve an award for my photographic practice (I achieved a Credit award through the Photographic Alliance of Great Britain (PAGB) in 2018).
“In November 2019 I went to the Photo North Festival and spoke to people from the RPS about the Distinctions process. I showed my composite photography and, because I already had my CPAGB award, I joined the Society in December 2019 and set my sights on achieving an Associate. This drove me to create what would become Fruits of the Earth.
‘Turnip‘ from the series Fruits of the Earth
“I’m inspired by the Raphael of flowers, Pierre-Joseph Redouté – arguably the greatest botanical illustrator of all time – and I wanted to create Fruits of the Earth in a similar style to his work. My composite photography fitted this well.
“Fruits of the Earth began in summer 2019. My husband and I spend our summers in the manor house we renovated in the Lomagne region of southwest France, which is famous for its garlic. I photographed some of this garlic hanging from a canvas on our terrace before capturing berries, sunflowers, figs and more. When I returned to England for winter I needed more subjects for my Associate submission, so my friend provided me with produce from his allotment – roots and all – to photograph.
“Each photograph has five or six layers. I focus on the subject and add an extra element – such as a separate cross-section of a garlic bulb – before applying text and editing flourishes to vintage paper. Then I place photographs of frames on top, merge layers and make the subject the main focus. My photographer friends suggested adding textured backgrounds, which worked really well. I applied this process to Fruits of the Earth and, although it’s complex, I absolutely love it.
‘Rose‘ from the series Fruits of the Earth
“I was so proud to have achieved Associate with Fruits of the Earth in the autumn of 2020. But having worked on it for over a year, I knew it had further mileage. That’s why I decided to submit it to the RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show in 2021.
“For this competition you need a minimum of six pictures to submit as a portfolio. I knew this submission needed to be more focused because it featured fruits, vegetables and flowers. I gathered five images of fruit from Fruits of the Earth and developed a new image of pears to create a more cohesive body of work.
“Normally, shortlisted photographs are shown at RHS flower shows around the country, but due to Covid-19 it was shown at the Saatchi Gallery simultaneously with the Chelsea Flower Show in September 2021. Being there for the opening exhibition was fantastic.
“From the Lomagne to Terrington to London, Fruits of the Earth achieving an Associate and RHS silver medal has been on an incredible journey.”