The vision behind Cole Thompson’s “The Angel Gabriel”
After having done several interviews with leading and renowned B&W fine art photographers, I’m starting this new series in which I interview B&W fine art photographers with just one single purpose: discuss 1 or 2 photos from their portfolio to find out how they come to create that specific image. Some technical details will be revealed, but more importantly I hope to reveal the vision behind the photograph. What was the artist thinking when he created that photograph, what was his artistic intention, why does the photo work, what was his creative thought process?
Technical skills can be taught and learned by everyone. Artistic vision, that what uniquely separates your work from others, cannot be taught, we can only learn by seeing how other artists creative thought process works.
I’ll start off part one of this series with a photographer who has created some of the best B&W fine art photographs in the last decade. An internationally renowned and awarded photographer who has been published in leading magazines world-wide. Cole Thompson, a man who I interviewed last year. Read this interview here: Spotlight interview with Cole Thompson. Cole Thompson, an artist with a vision.
Interview with Cole Thompson (CT) by Joel Tjintjelaar (JT)
JT: Cole, before we go and discuss into detail the vision behind one of your photographs I would like to know how you define ‘vision’. Every serious artist these days talk about vision, you talk about vision in many of your interviews and blogs, and I talk about vision. But what is vision really in your view? I think we all define it quite similarly but with subtle nuances. So how would you, Cole Thompson, define vision?
CT: Vision is a hard thing to define, but I think of it as the sum total of your life experiences that makes you see the world in your own unique way. When I look at a scene and instinctively know what I want it to look like, I call that vision. Too many photographers focus on their equipment or their processes, but in truth those are only important when they are considered as tools, subservient to vision. Here is my rule for creating great images:
Cole’s Rule of Thirds: A great image is made up of 1/3 vision, 1/3 the shot and 1/3 processing.
While I give vision an equal third in my rule, it’s really the most important component because it is vision that drives the shot and the processing. The process of creating a great image is forcing what we see with our eyes, into compliance with our vision. With vision, you can successfully create great images with simple equipment and basic processes. But without vision, not even the best equipment or complicated processes can rescue the image. Vision is everything.
JT: I would love to discuss with you one of your best known photographs: The Angel Gabriel (pictured above). It’s one of my favorites from your work, and I’m sure it’s a public favorite as well. You mentioned in one of our conversations that this photo marked a turning point in your career as a photographer as this was the first photo that you created according to your vision and not just merely captured. Why did you call this photo The Angel Gabriel?
CT: I almost always name my images with the first name that pops into my mind, and so to answer this question I must tell the story of The Angel Gabriel:
This is the Angel Gabriel. I met him on the Newport Beach pier as he was eating French Fries out of a trash can. He was homeless and hungry. I asked him if he would help me with a photograph and in return, I would buy him lunch. The pier was very crowded and I wanted to take a 30 second exposure so that everyone would disappear except Gabriel. We tried a few shots and then Gabriel wanted to hold his bible. The image worked and the only people you can see besides Gabriel are those “ghosts” who lingered long enough for the camera.
Gabriel and I then went into a restaurant to share a meal; he ordered steak with mushrooms and onions.
When it came, he ate it with his hands. I discovered he was Romanian and so am I, so we talked about Romania. He was simple, kind and a pleasure to talk with. I asked Gabriel how I might contact him, in case I sold some of the photographs and wanted to share the money with him. He said I should give the money to someone who could really use it; that he had
everything that he needed. Then the Angel Gabriel walked away, content and carrying his only two possessions: a Bible and a bed roll.
The name “The Angel Gabriel” just seemed to fit; his name was Gabriel and he embodied the qualities that I’d like to think an angel has.
JT: Looking at the photo, I can’t help but being mesmerized by it. I see a man, holding a book, looking into the camera. The dark railings of the pier enclosing him and at the same time creating depth. I see ghosts and I see his dark clothes in those beautiful black tones. And then there’s his hair that draws so much attention with the bright highlights in the clouds. I see so many things that I like, but what in your view is the key to success for this photo?
CT: I often think it’s the story that makes The Angel Gabriel successful, but the truth is that people are drawn to this image even before they hear the story. And once they’ve heard it, it becomes even more memorable. So what does make this image successful? We could analyze the various elements; the converging lines, the vignetting, the darkness, the long exposure…but I’m not sure we’d be doing anything more than speculating on something that I think is entirely emotional.
I don’t know why this appeals to people. I think the heart of the image is Gabriel himself, when I look at his face I see a kind man, but one who is also commanding. I think the way in which I have composed and processed the image also contributes to its success also. I often used The Angel Gabriel as an example of how an image can be appealing, but you’re not sure exactly why.
JT: What was your intention with this photo? Did you want to convey a story or a message, or was it simply a visually striking image you wanted to show the world?
CT: My images rarely have an intended message. That does not mean there’s no message to be found in them, but finding that message is the job of the viewer. My job is to create the image, and once created, my job is done. I also have a philosophical problem with saying too much about my images. Why would I use words to describe a picture that is rumored to be worth a thousand words? How can feeble words improve upon an image?
JT: How did you create this photo? What I want to know is: how did you go from the color version to this B&W version as we see now? What I mean is that any other photographer would have probably processed it differently, depending on his personal vision. I would love to know things like: How did you decide on the placements and the ‘pitch’ of the mid-grays, the blacks and the bright whites, why aren’t they whiter, or for that matter, less bright. Why are the railings of the pier and his clothes so black with almost no detail in it? It all works perfectly together but why are they like they are? Please lead us through your creative vision when you started converting this image to B&W.
CT: Let me walk you through how this image was created by starting with vision, because the creative process starts with the very idea of the image:
I had been photographing the pier in this same spot for about a half hour, and while the images had potential, they were lacking something: a subject! I looked around and saw Gabriel and immediately knew how I wanted this image to look. That vision guided me through the shot as well as the processing. I knew this would be a simple and clean image. I knew symmetry and the converging guard rails would play an important role. I envisioned it as a dark image, vignetted to focus the viewer’s eye on Gabriel.
I centered the image and used the converging lines of railings to draw the eye down the image. I used a long exposure for two reasons; first the pier was very crowded and with a long exposure I could make the people disappear. Second, it would impart a surrealistic quality that I love, the motion would not be too obvious but it would contribute to the feel of the image. The sky, the water and Gabriel himself were all positively affected by the longer exposure. I underexposed the image by 1 stop, a standard practice of mine. This creates a dark image that in processing I’ll dodge up the midtones and highlights as necessary.
This gave the image my trademark dark look, little or no shadow detail, and a bright subject with high contrast. I took several shots, in various poses and with Gabriel holding different items. But it was this one shot, the one in which Gabriel asked if he could hold his Bible, which worked. I think it worked because Gabriel became an active participant and you could see conviction in his eyes.
My workflow is very simple, I typically only use 6 Photoshop tools:
● The Camera RAW Conversion tool
● The Black and White Conversion tool
● Dodging and Burning
● Contrast Adjustment
● Cloning tool
Working in Camera RAW I set the image to 10X15, 360 ppi and 16 bit and make as many adjustments here as I can. I then open the image in Photoshop and convert it to black and white using the Black and White conversion tool. It allows you to adjust the color channels so that you can bring out hidden image detail, change tones and contrast. This is an important step in my workflow and one that I find most people underutilize. I simply play with each color channel to see how it affects the image and move them about until I get the look that I like.
I then do extensive dodging and burning using a tablet and pen. The tablet is essential to detailed dodging and burning and it’s one of my most used accessories. With dodging and burning I was able to bring out detail in the very flat and nondescript sky. I also used it to bring out the ghosts (people who paused as they passed by), vignetted the image and created the halo of light around Gabriel. I wanted a super clean look with no distractions and so I also cloned out a trash can, two light posts and some cracks on the pier. Next I moved to the histogram to check if I had true blacks and whites. Here is Gabriel’s histogram:
The only way to really know the status of your blacks and whites is to look at the histogram, you cannot trust you eyes! If I don’t have a true black or white, I’ll adjust using levels and play around with the midtones slider until I see the look that I want. That midtone slider is another very important tool that some people don’t use enough. The final histogram above shows that I have lots of good black and a true white in the image.
After I feel the image is complete, meaning that it has true blacks and whites and looks good on the monitor, I’ll add some additional global contrast. I’ve learned that once the image looks good on the monitor, it will look flat on paper due to the differences between transmitted light (your monitor) and reflected light (your print). So I’ll globally increase contrast and then make a test print.
My goal is to get an image to look as good on paper as it does on the monitor. It has to pop! That’s my creative process, it all starts with my vision which drives the shot and the processing.
JT: Do you instantly decide on creating the BW version as it is, or is it a process in which the output is constantly altered and how do you know when to stop?
CT: Sometimes my vision comes when I’m shooting, and sometimes it comes when I’m processing, and sometimes it’s a combination of both. In this case it was a little of both, and I don’t think it’s too important when the vision comes, as long as it comes.
This image did change as I processed it and matured over time, It initially started off lighter and then gradually grew darker. I would create a version of it and then let it sit for several weeks, then I’d look at it again and make some more adjustments. Over the years it has gotten progressively darker, with my last change occurring in 2011, so it keeps evolving! For me creating an image is a process and I have to live with an image for a while before I really know how I feel about it.
To give an idea of how much the image was changed from the “shot” to the final version, here is the before:
And here is the after:
Sometimes as an artist you may not want to let people “peek behind the curtain” and see your before image, but I think it’s important for people to know what’s possible. I’ve talked a lot about vision and how it guides you through the entire creation process. Now let me illustrate a very practical benefit of having a vision of your work. Without vision I might have opened up this “before” image and discarded it, it’s not that inspiring in its original state. But because I had that vision, I knew it’s potential and pursued it.
JT: Cole, thanks so much for this insightful interview and allowing us to get a peek behind the curtain and into your creative thought process. This may help people realize that vision is indeed everything and how to form their own vision.
Auschwitz 14 © Cole Thompson