Cole Thompson in the spotlight

Not so long ago, over a year to be precise, I started this series of Spotlight interviews with award winning black and white photographer Michael Levin. Unfortunately, due to all sorts of issues around my website this first interview in this series never had a successor. So I’m happy to announce that with the re-launch of www.bwvision.com this series finally will be continued.

I would like to re-start this series with a B&W fine art photographer whom I have greatly admired over the years and who has definitely influenced my work but most of all, my way of approaching photography and more in particular the way I approach fine art.
This photographer, Cole Thompson, is an award-winning black and white photographer who has been creating some of the most amazing and brilliant BW images that I know over the years and resulted in many publications in leading photography magazines and multiple international awards.

Images like The Angel Gabriel, Harbinger No. 1, Auschwitz 13 or the Lone Man series are imprinted in my mind and have influenced my work in a conscious and subconscious way. Although being an award-winning photographer who is also admired and respected by many of his peers, he never refers to himself like that.

This is what Cole says in his CV: My art has appeared in hundreds of exhibitions, numerous publications and has received many awards. And yet my resume does not list those accomplishments, why? In the past I’ve considered those accolades as the evidence of my success, but I now think differently. My success is no longer measured by the length of my resume, but rather by how I feel about the art that I create. While I do enjoy exhibiting, seeing my work published and meeting people who appreciate my art, this is an extra benefit of creating, but this is not success itself. I believe that the best success is achieved internally, not externally.

Words like these have made me admire not only Cole’s work but also the artist, the man that Cole Thompson is. The more I read about him and view his work, the more I relate to his work and the way he approaches photography.

Cole has a very outspoken view on photography and on what defines a good photograph. I always remembered this quote of his: A photograph consists of 1/3 the shot, 1/3 the editing and 1/3 the vision. I couldn’t agree more and I have made this quote my personal slogan. He calls it his rule of thirds but I have adopted it as my rule of thirds as well.

I’m happy to have had this interview with Cole and to share it with you. Please visit Cole Thompson on www.colethompsonphotography.com or visit his very informative blog on www.photographyblackwhite.com

- Joel Tjintjelaar

Interview with Cole Thompson

JT: You’ve once stated that there’s a difference between a photographer and an artist and you strive to be an artist. I think you’re absolutely right but I would like to hear your explanation of that statement.
CT: First let me say that while I am outspoken, I never mean to tell others how they should approach their art, this is simply how I see things!


I do think there is a difference between a photographer and an artist. Many argue with me and insist that photography is an art form, but then I show them a really bad Sears portrait of my three boys from the 1980’s and ask “is this art?” Clearly not all photography is art and not all photographers are artists!

For most of my life I considered myself a photographer and somehow felt my duty was to present an “accurate” image. Of course it’s now clear to me that everything that we do as photographers changes or manipulates the image. Where we stand, how we frame the image, what lens we use, our exposure, our post processing; all of that changes the image and brings it into line with our vision of the image.

Once I realized that I wanted to be an artist and that I could do anything I wanted, my work really changed. It felt great to not just ignore the rules, but to say “there are no rules!” Now the only limiting factor in my art is me.

There is nothing wrong with being a photographer and documenting, but I want to be an artist and create.

JT: You’ve formulated your rule of thirds and I have to fully agree with you. I think the shot – basically technical skills – can be taught and learned, the same applies to the editing. But what about vision? Can you learn vision? Or is a skillful photographer without any vision doomed to be just a skillful photographer whose work will have no artistic value?
CT: I believe that vision can be uncovered and developed. We all have creative abilities but for some of us it’s buried very deep. That’s how it was for me, I was raised with no exposure to art and grew up believing I had no talent. This is part of the reason I took up photography, because I thought that by mastering my technical abilities I could compensate for my lack of creative ability.It took a conscious effort to change my thinking before I could believe that I had a creative side. The first thing I did was to change the language that I used, to help remind me of my goal; for example I would never say “capturing a photograph” but rather “creating an image” and I would refer to myself as an artist rather than a photographer.

I would also avoid talking about the technical creation of my images, but would talk about the creative process. Over time and with the encouragement of a mentor, I began to believe in my artistic abilities. Since then I’ve worked with others who wanted to make this same change in mindset, and I’ve seen the same metamorphosis in them as well.

So yes, I do believe that vision can be uncovered and developed in everyone. I find it ironic when photographers complain that they are not taken seriously as artists, when all they talk about is equipment and processes. If you’d like to be an artist, then stop acting like a photographer! Do you think painters talk about their brushes and canvases when asked about their work? I doubt it.

(see my blog entitled: Am Imaginary Conversation between Vincent and Pablo at www.colethompsonphotography.com)

JT: Your most recent work, the Fountainhead, has intrigued me and attracted me in a way I can’t explain. But maybe that is because I always wanted to be an architect myself. In fact I like them a lot but at the same time I know that this isn’t going to be your most popular series. What is the Fountainhead? Why did you create this series the way you’ve created it with the strange, deformed buildings and how did you create them? I feel there’s a deeper message behind it. Can you tell us more about the Fountainhead?
CT: Like you, I also wanted to be an architect! This series was a way to combine my first two loves; architecture and photography with a philosophy that I love. The title “The Fountainhead” comes from the novel of the same name by Ayn Rand and its message is that one should create to please oneself and that success should be achieved on ones own terms.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from the book, from an encounter between the book’s main character Howard Roark and his insecure architect friend Peter. In this exchange Peter has come to ask Howard what he thinks of his latest work:“If you want my advice, Peter,” he said at last, “you’ve made a mistake already. By asking me, by asking anyone. Never ask people, not about your work. Don’t you know what you want? How can you stand it, not to know?”

I think that too often we base our definition of success on what others think, but that’s a shifting landscape that at best will produce 15 minutes of fame, if we’re lucky. Fame is a fickle mistress and she always has her sights set on her next conquest. Better to please oneself.

And you’re right, the series will not be my most popular one, but that’s okay! I love it and when I encounter people who love architecture or the novel, it’s a real treat. That’s the beauty of the philosophy of The Fountainhead; success is not measured by what others think, but by what I think!

You asked about the process of creating these distortions, which up to now I’ve kept secret. These distortions were not made in Photoshop, instead I choose to go old school and created them in-camera by photographing the buildings from the reflection of a ferrotype plate.

A ferrotype plate is a flexible metal plate with a mirror finish and is very similar to a funhouse mirror. The older photographers will remember them from the darkroom days before we had RC papers, we used this plate to put a glossy finish on papers such as Kodabromide.

We would squeegee the print face down to the plate and then dry them, which would give them a beautiful finish. I distorted the buildings by bending and twisting the ferrotype plate in various ways to create modern looking structures, and very different from the reality.

Later as I learned to control the process better I was able to apply long exposures to the images for a more fluid look. It was a fun project that took all around the country and gave me some fun adventures with security guards and the police.

JT: What defines a good photograph in your view and what prevails: aesthetics or mood/a deeper message? What will last longer or is the phrase ‘mood’ just overrated?
CT: Let me come clean right now, I have no training in art or photography for that matter. I really am an art simpleton; all I know is what I like.Have you looked at George Barr’s book entitled “Why Photographs Work”? He takes 52 images and talks about why they work and the then artist comments about the images as well. I admire people like George who can discern what art means and express it, but that’s not my talent.

I will say that sometimes my images have no meaning at all, they are simply “pretty pictures.” I think that’s okay, I don’t believe that every image needs to have a deeper meaning, make a statement, be political or have ecological overtones. Sometimes beautiful is good enough and I wish there were more beautiful images being created.

JT: And what defines a good photographer in your view? Does he have to be a celibate, just like you are or does he need to absorb all art, all influences and then try to pick out the best of all these influences and combine and integrate it into his then newly created art? I think I know your answer on the latter but maybe you could elaborate on the first?
CT: I’d never judge who is a good photographer and who isn’t; I can only say what I love and what I don’t care for. You’re an artist Joel, you know how different people’s tastes can be; with some loving your work while others just don’t appreciate it at all. But thank goodness we’re all so different!Your question also refers to “Photographic Celibacy” which is my practice of not studying other photographers work. This helps me to think more originally and to not copy, consciously or subconsciously, the ideas and styles of others.

About 9 out of 10 people think I’m nuts for pursuing this practice and believe that I’m actually hurting my creative growth by this self-imposed fast. They argue that looking at other’s art helps to stimulate and create new ideas. They believe that art is evolutionary and that creativity leapfrogs from the work of others..

How can I argue with that approach when it works for so many people? However, I do believe there are many paths to navigate art and life and right now this approach works for me. Maybe one day I’ll change my mind and look back and think I was crazy!

JT: With the arrival of digital tools, the Internet, sites like Flickr and other social media, photography has changed in many ways: not only in the way we shoot, the way we post-process them but also in the way we share them with the outside world. We’re flooded with photos on the Internet by people who are self proclaimed photographers and artists (me included!), and not only are we now confronted with a lot of bad work that I wouldn’t call art but at the same time I see so many artists who are just fantastic and who would never be discovered if they would’ve lived 30 years earlier. How do you look at this and how do you personally see the future of photography? Is this digital era a curse or a blessing for photographic art?
CT: You’re right, the world is changing, and fast. One great thing about digital photography is that the barriers to entry are lessening; you no longer need to invest in a darkroom and gain years of experience to be able to create great work. This means that creative people, who in the past could not make those financial and time investments, are now being discovered. I think this is good.One could argue that it also means that there is a lot more “bad” art out there. Perhaps, but I’m not afraid of bad art, it’s the good art that I’m afraid of! I’m kidding of course, but the point is that in the digital world there is more competition, and more great competition!

I think that increasingly the test will become who has the staying power to continue creating over time. Digital may make it easier to produce a couple of “one hit wonders,” but will that person continue to grow and produce art? I think we may see many new digital photographers come and go, but who will still be here in 10 years?

I personally appreciate digital because it has improved my work; I can do more, work more deliberately and I can work in a lightroom! I know that many people still love the darkroom, and I certainly have fond memories of those days and smells, but I prefer digital.

But the truth is that technology and process are not my gods, but rather tools to serve my god: The Art.

JT: Can you tell me something about your equipment, do you use digital, film (MED format or LF) or both? – What do you prefer and why?
CT: My background is film, 35mm and some medium format. In 2004 I became interested in digital and switched. At the time most people didn’t consider digital a serious tool and certainly not for b&w, but I believed in it and stuck with it and am quite happy with it.I use Canon’s: always have, always will. Not because they are “better” but because I’m used to them, my first SLR in 1968 was a Canon FTb. My cameras today are a 1Ds Mark III and a 5D Mark II.

I do have one piece of equipment that I consider indispensible, my Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter. It’s an adjustable neutral density filter that adjusts its intensity like a polarizer. The variability of this filter has allowed me to create images that I just couldn’t have done with fixed filters and has allowed me to create projects such as the Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

But in general I don’t like to put too much emphasis on my equipment. What is more important than equipment is a person’s vision, that’s a much more powerful tool than any camera or lens.

JT: In my view post processing of an image, whether it is done in the digital darkroom or in the conventional darkroom, is essential to give your personal interpretation of the world as we live in. There are a lot of photographers who claim that an image should be realistic or natural and straight out of the camera and reject any form of post-processing. What is your view on this?
CT: Here is one of my blog entries entitled “Do You Manipulate Your Images?”Do You Manipulate Your Images?

When people learn that my images are created digitally they often ask “do you manipulate your images?” To which I enthusiastically answer “Yes!”

Everything I do starting with how I frame the image, expose and process it, is intended to manipulate that image into alignment with my vision. Rarely, if ever, do I try to recreate what I saw with my eyes. I believe that my vision is the difference between me being a photographer who documents and an artist who creates. When I set up my camera at a scene, I already know what I want that image to look like and rarely does it resemble reality.

Some have suggested that “manipulation” is a “photographic sin” and I’ve heard others say that you shouldn’t do anything in Photoshop that you couldn’t do in the darkroom. I find it odd that we should freeze our progress and limit ourselves to the technology of the 1990’s under some sense of purity, why not freeze our techniques to that used in the 1890’s and only use wet plates? My feeling is that art should be about the art, and not the process.

Many extol Ansel Adams as the master of photographic purity, and one that faithfully reproduced the scene with minimal manipulation. Recently I saw a series of photographs that were taken from the very same spot where Ansel had taken his most famous Yosemite images, but with a point and shoot camera. They then did a side-by-side comparison of the images and it was striking because it so clearly revealed how much Adams manipulated his images. In my opinion that’s why Ansel was an artist, because he didn’t simply document a scene but created images that matched his unique vision. He was a master of “manipulation” and his work certainly did not represent reality.

Should photographers have any limits? I don’t think so; does a painter have limits, or an actor or musician? How would an art advance or a person grow if others were telling them what they couldn’t do?

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong with art there shouldn’t be any do’s or don’ts. Ignore the world and its experts, find your own vision and go wherever that takes you.

Do I manipulate my images? You bet I do!

JT: Can you tell us something about your post-processing of an image?
CT: My workflow is so primitive that Popular Photography called me “The Photoshop Heretic.” My typical workflow goes something like this: I shoot in RAW and B&W mode, use the Photoshop supplied b&w conversion tool, then use Levels to adjust my black and white points, do a lot of dodging and burning and then adjust my contrast so that the print has some “pop” to it. That’s about it.This simple workflow dovetails with my personal philosophy of keeping things simple. I do not use b&w conversion programs, layers, plug-ins, RIP’s or special ink sets. I long ago gave up on the search for the “perfect” paper and use only two; Epson Exhibition Fiber for glossy and Hahnemuhle Photo Rag 308 for matte.

My workflow is kept purposely simple to help me focus on the creative and not the technical. I am a techie by nature and found that I could spend hours on things that really didn’t improve the image. I advise beginning photographers to master the basic tools first and then, if you really think some significant benefit will come, consider some of the extras tools.

JT: Looking at your work I see a lot of variety in your work: from long exposures to regular shots with a variety of subjects but always with a recurring theme. The Harbinger series, the Lone Man or the Ghosts of Auschwitz. How do you work on a theme, are you deliberately looking for a theme or subject to create a series or do you stumble upon a theme or subject by coincidence and then decide that it would make an interesting series?
CT: For years I was a “Photographic Grazer” and would wander the countryside looking for “one hit wonders.” Great images, but singles that did not relate in any way to the other work that I had created. I had a good time doing that but then I came to a point in my creative life where I wanted to something more “cohesive.” I wanted to start working in portfolios and use a common idea to connect the images and tell a story.I still go out and graze as a way to find new ideas, hoping that I’ll see something that excites me. That’s how the Harbinger series started, I was just lucky when I found Harbinger No. 1 and said I want to keep going! The same thing happened with the Ceiling Lamp series, when you find the right project there is no need to make a conscious decision to continue, you just do it because you’re so excited!

The Auschwitz images came about a little bit differently, the idea came to me suddenly and I had very little time to create the images. I was walking on the grounds of Auschwitz when the inspiration suddenly hit me to portray the camps as places where the spirits of the dead still lingered. The problem was that my tour bus was leaving in less than an hour and so I really had to work quickly, literally running from location to location.

JT: One of my favorite series of yours is the Lone man series and I always wondered how you create these images. They look like double exposures since the humans in it look motionless despite the long exposure effects in the rest of the image. Can you tell us how you create them?
CT: My first Lone Man image was created quite by accident. I was setting up for a long exposure on the California coast, but couldn’t continue because there was a group of people in the way. I was all ready to go, but one man remained in the frame and you could tell that he wasn’t leaving anytime soon. So I decided to make use of the time and create a test image to check my exposure.Once I looked at the test image I saw something I had not consciously noticed before. The man stood still throughout the 30 second exposure, and it was clear that he was pondering as he looked out over the infinite vastness of the ocean. Suddenly I started noticing this behavior in others, people would be reflective as they stared out to sea. Here is how I describe this phenomenon in my artist statement for The Lone Man::

Something unusual happens when a person stands on the edge of the world and stares outward. They become very still and you can almost see their thoughts as they ponder something much greater than themselves:

Where did I come from?
What is my purpose?
What does it all mean?
What is beyond, the beyond?
Do I make a difference?
Is there more?

At that moment they are The Lone Man, alone with their thoughts about matters much greater than themselves. People are affected by this time of meditation and they often vow to make changes in their lives. But these commitments are usually short lived as weighty matters are replaced with more immediate concerns:

Should I eat at McDonalds or Burger King and should I try that new green milkshake?

So in answer to your question: these are all single exposures.

JT: Do you have any favorite photographers and how have they influenced your work?
CT: My favorite artist is Edward Weston, both because of his work but especially because of his attitudes. One of my favorite stories is told by Ansel Adams:“After dinner, Albert (Bender) asked Edward to show his prints. They were the first work of such serious quality I had ever seen, but surprisingly I did not immediately understand or even like them; I thought them hard and mannered. Edward never gave the impression that he expected anyone to like his work. His prints were what they were. He gave no explanations; in creating them his obligation to the viewer was completed.”

Modern influences? I’d mention only one, Alexey Titarenko. When I saw his portfolio “City of Shadows” which used long exposures, I was changed. I’ve always loved long exposures, but his work inspired me to use them in new and different ways. I guess this admission just shot down my argument for photographic celibacy and for not looking at other photographer’s work!

JT: What can we expect from you in the future, any new projects you’re working on?
CT: One of the things I really love about what I do is the ability to change my subjects and style. So many “experts” have advised me to pick just one subject and become known for that, but that would really bore me!

So instead I have pursued a variety of subjects and am proud of that. It’s fun and stimulating.
One project that has recently piqued my interest, although it’s not an original idea, are stone jetties. I created this image just last week:

I’ll also be continuing to look for more solitary clouds so that I can add to my Harbinger Series. Beyond that, I have a few ideas and if I get excited about them, off I go. Otherwise I’ll just go out wandering the countryside and patiently look. Being patient is one of the best things I’ve learned to do as an artist; because you just cannot rush inspiration or passion, they come when they come.

13 Responses to “Cole Thompson in the spotlight”

  1. I like to share information that will I have accumulated through the season to assist improve group overall performance.

  2. Deborah Horner says:

    Interesting article about Cole and how he works. I feel now more confident to use the digital medium to produce black and white prints. As an avid and opinionated darkroom photographer, I have been really struggling with converting to digital….and to see Cole’s wonderful images produced in the way that he does has helped.

  3. Jay Casper says:

    Joel,

    What an excellent article!

    Cole’s work makes you feel and it makes you think. It doesn’t really give you a choice. It really is powerful, and your interview illuminates the reasons why. Thanks for digging so deep into Cole’s perspective.

  4. Michael Diblicek says:

    Superb Interview Joel,
    I’ve been a Cole Thompson fan for a few years now, and it’s always interesting to hear his point of view, good questions helps that (well done for that).
    I share a very close philosophy with Cole in terms of post processing and the photographers vision of the scene.

  5. Jeff Gaydash says:

    Great interview Joel. I have struggled with ‘Photographic Celibacy’ for years after art school but never knew what it was called! It took me years to recover from intensely studying photography and felt that it ruined my creative vision for many years. I also am in full agreement with Cole regarding image manipulation. An artistic photograph by definition IS a manipulation of reality. I also find it very strange when photographer’s say they use Photoshop like a traditional darkroom, only for burning and dodging, etc. It’s kind of like a computer programmer using a typewriter to write code. Well not really but that would not make much sense either!

  6. Thanks all for the comments and FB likes. I’m working on new interviews with photographers who have an outspoken view. If there’s anyone in particular you would like us to interview, then let us know!

  7. Jesse (Calmtwood) says:

    Magnificent read, Joel. And I wholeheartedly agree with Holly.

  8. Jorn Kremers says:

    Very inspirational interview :) Especialy about not listening to external factors, but more to the internal ones.

    I do look at other photographer’s work, but less and less to the type of work I do. I’m also worried that I might copy them and or loose my own vision. Instead I spend more time looking at portraits and street photography for insiration.

  9. FIne, thought provoking interview. I particularly like what Cole has to say about the art of manipulation and his encouraging new techniques and tools. One of peoples’ first questions about one of my photos is “Did it come out of the camera like that?” Ah, if they only knew. And he’s so right: sometimes less is more in the post-op department. Beautiful, powerful work that inspires asking those very questions the lone man might be considering.

  10. Matt Toynbee says:

    Really inspiring interview I really enjoyed reading and absorbing it.

  11. Shivakumar says:

    Hi Joel,

    Thanks a million ton for posting this interview. I have been a huge fan and a inspirational follower of Cole and i like his words as much as i like his work. Over a period of time following his blog and his work i have got a special bit of respect for him which is just unmatchable. The rule of thirds, the post on lone-man etc are some of my personal favorites too.

    Thanks once again and wish you good luck.

    Cheers,
    Shiv
    India

  12. Thanks Holly I’m glad you and most other people like it. I agree with you and with Cole: sometimes beautiful is just good enough. Maybe the sense and the overwhelming feel of beauty is the most profound meaning?

    Joel

  13. Holly says:

    Thank you for sharing this interview, Joel – what a refreshing point of view from an artist! I particularly appreciated his stance on what makes a good photograph:

    “I will say that sometimes my images have no meaning at all, they are simply “pretty pictures.” I think that’s okay, I don’t believe that every image needs to have a deeper meaning, make a statement, be political or have ecological overtones. Sometimes beautiful is good enough and I wish there were more beautiful images being created.”

    I have the same philosophy – while meaningful images has their place, I believe the creation of beauty is a noble pursuit, and one that makes art more accessible to everyone.

    I’m so happy the website is up and running again! I’m looking forward to reading more interviews and seeing more beautiful works of art. Thank you again.

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