In her Cubism-inflected, collage-based practice, British artist Julie Cockburn is drawn to found imagery of what she describes as an ‘almost archetypal ordinariness’. These disarmingly bland pictures – sourced on eBay or at car-boot sales – are then submitted to a labour-intensive process of defacement and transformation, the addition of materials ranging from embroidery silks to marbles producing highly crafted final works of uncanny abstracted fascination. ‘The original images I work on are often discarded, creased and dog-eared, and there is an element of repair, mending and caressing that goes on,’ she says. ‘People often say my work is aggressive, but I think it is the opposite. I think it is a loving practice. I am a perfectionist.’

In her new show of hand-altered photographs, Waiting Room, she explores the social territory of everyday encounters between strangers. ‘In a waiting room, one is, by definition, waiting, away from the hustle of everyday life. We are temporarily on hold, together but separate,’ she explains.

At Flowers Gallery, London E2, until 10 January 2015.

Beginnings: I’m not sure how to define what I do. I am certainly not a conventional photographer – the camera does not feature in my practice at all – nor a painter, nor a sculptor. I trained as a sculptor, though interestingly all of my degree show was wall-hung; reliefs I suppose you would call them, using cut photographs, postcards and catalogue images. I learned at college to recognize the integrity of the materials I use. Now I look for an authenticity in my raw materials – almost iconic (for example, plasticine, embroidery silks, marbles), always utterly undiluted, familiar materials, often used entirely out of context, as a means of constructing a new, if not 3D or spatial, then a layered (both physical and psychological) process of viewing the piece. It is this juxtaposition of materials that bookends a space for imagination, hinting at a narrative.

Archetypal Ordinariness: I was initially very interested in the notion of the untreasured, forgotten images that are revived, rescued from obscurity, but as my practice has developed, I realize I am more concerned with an authentic, almost archetypal ordinariness, which invites connection/identification with the everyman/woman. I work with found images and objects of all sorts – photographs, paintings, magazine pulls, bookplates – and I have learnt over the years to buy the things that catch my eye, whatever they may be. It is the ones I didn’t get that tend to haunt me. The internet is my main source, though car-boot fairs and charity shops are great for the spontaneous find. I am drawn to very static images: studio portraits, studies rather than storytelling images. These lend themselves to the layering of a narrative through manipulation, materials added and titles.

Process: Sometimes I know exactly what I want to do, other times I will sit with an image for a while, pinning clusters of them on my studio walls, and just wait. I have chosen the initial objects for a reason, though it’s not always clear what that is. It’s usually just a matter of time. I like to call it having a conversation with the images, making a spontaneous response to them. It’s less about thinking and more about instinct, perhaps adding what seems to be hidden there or missing, unspoken. I often feel that the original images were somehow waiting for me to complete them in this way. I think this is what makes a work successful. The first thing I do is scan or photograph the image so that I have a facsimile that I can work on. They are precious, these found images, and so I don’t initially work directly onto them when I’m planning a piece. I do a lot of preparation work on the computer, especially with the embroidery and collaged works – they need to be pricked and cut very accurately, so I make templates and acetates to aid me. I get a rush of adrenalin when I start a piece – it’s an exciting moment when the intervention starts and I commit to the defacement. And then there is often a long, obsessive, repetitive and laborious process that can be incredibly tedious. As a work progresses, it may change from the original design – bits are added, colours changed – but, unlike painting, there is no going backwards: you can’t scrape off an embroidery or undo a cut. I find it quite stressful too, because I have such a clear image of what I am trying to make and the process sometimes gets in the way. But I am so driven to finish the work and see how it turns out. Annoyingly, I can’t always know if the finished thing is going to sing or not, and often weeks of embroidery are thrown away (metaphorically – they stay in my studio for a while; I can’t face throwing out that much labour for some time). 

The Ethics of Appropriation: The photos are dusty, creased objects, sold in a job lot by a chance eBayer for a few pence. They are history-less in the sense of family lineage, unloved and forgotten, and sold not as an image of a person, but as a collectable object. The photo itself has currency as an object, rather than as a homage to the person or place it depicts. So I feel in some ways that I am reinventing them, giving them a second chance – almost collaborating in hindsight with the original photographer, creating another opportunity for exposure. The altered image then goes back out into the world to be looked at, scrutinized, loved (or objected to), and the process starts all over again. A woman recognized her grandmother as the basis of one piece of work. She was delighted that I had found it (in a lot on eBay, as far as I remember) as she did not have an image of her granny herself. It was so battered and broken when I received it. She bought the work.