In Conversation With: Barbara Cole

Barbara Cole’s artwork is extensively collected by both public and private institutions and has been exhibited worldwide in such venues as the Canadian embassies in Washington, D.C. and Tokyo, Japan. Throughout her career, Cole has worked internationally on commercial projects and large-scale art commissions including installations for the Breast Cancer Centre in Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital and for Trump Hollywood, Florida. Cole has won prestigious awards such as the Grand Prix at the Festival International de le Protographie de Mode in Cannes, France. In 2012 the acclaimed documentary series, Snapshot: The Art of Photography II, features an episode devoted exclusively to Cole’s photographic practice. Cole is currently on the advisory board of the Seneca College Photography Department in Toronto.

EA: How did you start working in photography? And can you talk about the introduction to underwater photography?

BC: Oh, interesting. Well, I never thought I would be a photographer; it never even dawned on me that it was a profession, right? I just dropped out of high school due to depression when I was 16 and went into a hospital. And when I came out, I was so out of sync with my friends. You know, they were still going forward. And I was now in the other world, you know, there was nobody my age, and I was also quite damaged still. So I had done a little bit of modeling. And I thought until I figure out what I’m going to do, I’ll try and earn some money that way. And I ended up modeling for a client who had folded a newspaper, and another one rose in its ashes. And it wasn’t unionized. So they’re just one of the people I worked for. I did a bridal supplement for was the fashion editor of this newspaper. And about four months after I got out of the hospital, she offered me this job as a fashion editor. I was 17, no confidence, mostly no confidence, right? I probably learned. But I hadn’t even been on an airplane.
So I started working at the Toronto Sun newspaper as a fashion editor. And my favorite part of the job that came very naturally was the photoshoots. Every week, we choose a theme, and then you know, do a double-page spread. It was so much fun. The photographers were always asking me to compose the shot because they thought my eye was good. And I didn’t even know why I was just so happy to be able to do something.
I stayed there for ten years. And I became the staff photographer as well. I was given free film cameras, so I thought well, this would be a great way to learn, shall I ever want to use it? And I loved it. And I loved it. Like it took over. And I was there for ten years. I got a sabbatical. And they gave me three months off like everybody who was there for ten years would get three months off to do a project. I was still a writer and a geographer, but I wanted to try my hand at a show. So I sat for three months and got taken on by the best gallery in Canada. And then I thought, well, I can’t go back to the Sun because I want a job. Yeah, if I want a fine art photography career, I can’t be shooting sunshine boys.
Although that was lots of fun, right?
But yeah, that’s how I started. I then opened my studio ten years after I began as an editor and a photographer, and the underwater thing was crazy. I, you know, in high school, I have been on swim teams. But you know, it wasn’t an Olympic swimmer, I just loved it. Then I got away from swimming. And I had some physical problems with my neck. And a doctor said to me, you know, you should swim every day. I got hooked on swimming. And I’d swim like at 630 before going to work. Then, you know, one thing led to another, and we ended up moving our house to, you know, another place that had an empty backyard. And we decided, wouldn’t it be nice to have? For two years never dawned on me to shoot in the pool. I had tried an underwater shoot when I was a fashion editor. And I realized that you need your own place, because it’s, it’s messy. And I can’t be borrowing bungalows.
Within one day, I’m sitting by the pool, and I realized that I could shoot underwater, and I knew exactly what I wanted to shoot. I borrowed cameras from Nikon. You know, and I’ve been shooting now for over 20 years. I’m not a photo documentarian. I see things in my mind. They’re usually very poetic, and the water gives me the license to stretch the ice. You know, pre-determined?

EA: Yes. And that was one of the questions that I had in here. When I was going through your work, it’s so many things, but water seems to be like that common thread. So what’s your connection to water? Something that drives you there?

BC: You would have to see emotionally how I’m feeling in the water to shoot the kind of picture I shoot. It’s not technical at all. It’s more of a feeling of what I want to see and in that’s from my life, you know, how I perceived art as a child, what things I loved, and what things I didn’t really like, and then the ability to see that I could do that myself. And I could work for myself and hire people to help me fulfill my dream. It was just crazy. Like, it worked for 35 years as a commercial photographer and a director of television. So I’m always hiring for other people, right to get the look they wanted and When I, you know, eventually, over 20 years now I’ve been solely focused on artwork, I was able to do it for myself it was excellent training. Because as a commercial photographer, you have to nail things down, go in a big shoot, and say, I wish I had a stylist, be nice to have a model that could do this. I was learning how to do things because commercial photography put the fear of God into me. I’ve learned to push myself to come up with the idea and figure out how the process of it, right, stay within my comfort zone; I don’t even do that. You know, I don’t have a clue how I’m going to do it. My assistant is more comfort zone than me, and I have to give him a heads up.

EA: I mean to come up with that is outstanding, though. I remember when I first started shooting, I’m like, this is terrifying. But it’s also enjoyable because you don’t know where things are going to go. I’ve noticed and in my experience of trying to build a business of my own within the arts. It helps you learn, but it is like, rigorous, it’s kind of difficult to do and still frame it to work and always be enjoyable for the artists like okay, this is so fun. So it’s been exciting in that process. So I appreciate you saying that it makes me feel like I’m not crazy.

BC: No, not crazy at all. I had no training. So I if I was in school, I think that the teachers might have shut me down. Because I’ve been exploring as you should in school since I started, I didn’t know what was possible. You see, I didn’t realize until I did it that it was hard. I was always wondering whether if I went to school, and I was trying to do something. The person in the next chair or the teacher wandering through the rooms would be negative, even sharing too much of the magic.

EA: So I shot this series on film was my first time shooting on 35 millimeter. It was a series, “My God Wears A Durag.” And I wanted to take the black men that I saw every day and then depict them in these religious types of poses. Also, have that connection to the black community through the durag. And I remember during my critique like I was so emotional. Right, you have a connection to your work. And I remember this was like, my critique was like 20 minutes, and I was so miserable. However, it was something I had to become accustomed to. Understanding that if someone gives me advice, I don’t have to listen to it. I can take it and then decide what I want to do with it.

BC: It does sit there. Especially early on it, I think it kind of, you know, really puts you on unsteady ground because you remember it. And because you think your teachers have more experience than you do.I remember that feeling terrible feeling because it sometimes takes years to come back to an idea. Because you like it, maybe you made a mistake. And there are no mistakes, there are no mistakes, and getting the confidence to talk about your work. It just takes years, as it does takes time. You know, because in the beginning, you’re brand new, and people might not understand what you’re doing or enjoy what you’re doing. First of all, I’ve outlasted almost all the photographers around me. All these guys were getting all the car commercials and whatever, you know, I was getting and then hygiene because I’m a woman. Right?
Oh, Monistat. And they’ll do Pontiac, and they get paid 15 grand a day, and I get one grand. It was insane. However, I can say from if you stick with it and you love it. You become the master. You know, it’s not that you’re not humble. It’s just you trust that what you have to say you’re going to have to say no matter what. So, gotta live with yourself, you know, keep going.

EA: I wanted to ask you about your experience the first time you attempted to shoot underwater; what was that like?

BC: It was magical. Honestly, everything I thought it would be like I had ideas in my mind, you know, and I put the models in my clothes. And I was into a very 30s retro kind of; I’ve moved up a decade or two. Everything I had was mesh. So it floated beautifully in the water. Again, I saw things moving, and I couldn’t believe it. But it was automatic. It was so manual in that you had to measure how far the person is away from you. So that was it was tough, but I did the from the first roll of film.
Everything was manual, so I had to wait to see what I did or didn’t do, right for two days was pretty bad.
Trial and error, and you learn what will work and it’s not going to work, what I invent in terms of my own photography and what I want to achieve with it. It’s not in the books.

EA: I wanted to add to ask as well. So as much as I love photography, painting is something I enjoy. What were your inspirations, and your work does foster a painterly style, is that intentional? More specifically, exploration and extension of Jean-Honoré’s The Swing?

BC: In 1990, when I was using Polaroid SX 70 film because it was painterly. It wasn’t realistic. And although I loved shooting, I didn’t love what I was shooting; it was too real. So I found Polaroid film, then Polaroid went bankrupt. And I had to find another way to make it less realistic, which was water, since then, well, water is always the commonality. I think if you have a slow shutter speed, the person’s soul comes out more. I don’t know why. But you get more of their expression in their heart coming out on the surface of their being; I always shoot super slow so that I get that magical moment.

EA: So when I was going through your work, “Female Abstraction” and “Hidden Target” are a couple of my favorites, but can you discuss the process of creating those images?

BC: I was inspired. So funny, I forgot so many painters inspired me; I started with one direction and ends up with extraordinarily abstract figures. It’s like they’re dipped in paint. That was the idea. Then, I photographed them on colored sheets of Plexiglas. So I could reenact the Rothko blocks of color or Frankenthaler blocks of color. The biggest challenge was that the models were dancers, thank God, because they’re down. One girl said it was the very first modeling job she ever had. She said she told me later on that it was the most terrifying experience of her life.
I did get very insecure because everybody knew me for these romanticized women in fluffy floaty dresses. And here I am doing something very modern. And I have my collectors come to my house. I was very excited about the new direction I showed it to her. And she very politely told me, it may not do well, and I should do other things as well. And I’m so regretful because I should have gone stronger into that; I should have focused on that. You’re always learning to know that you’re all right. to shore your confidence up and, you know, and do what you need to do.

EA: I think the work that you make is stunning. I wanted to ask, what, what has been your, your most challenging body of work to create and why?

BC: Hmm, you know, they’re all challenging. You know some are physically challenging. And, you know, some are being in the water eight hours and I’m holding my breath for hours straight. And then I come out of the water, and I’m dehydrated, and I’m dizzy.

EA: What do you want people to take from your work?

BC: I want them to make peace and feel serenity. I want them to let it fill their eyes and then their head and sink into their body and get that moment of stillness. Another undercurrent surfacing was about mental awareness, mental health awareness. My normal state is down, so when I’m working, I want to create happier and more beautiful things. I don’t I couldn’t do both, I need a break for myself.

I shot flowers because I shot so many people, and I decided to go non-figurative for a while. And this was way before COVID. And then it worked out well, but not perfect. Then, during COVID, just before the summer of this year, I tend to go through the files with a fine-tooth comb, I found one image that worked one, and it took my breath away. So I ended up tossing everything out. Except for that one image, And they’ve never seen flowers shot underwater. And thereby, they became exquisite. I got the first show, first go at it. I became obsessed with mirroring it above the water and below the water and these double imagery. And I thought no, that’s ridiculous
that when I look back at it.

To view more of Barbara Cole’s work please visit their website.