All images by Barbara Cole. Used with permission.
“I don’t disclose the technical elements of my practice,” says Barbara Cole as we ask her what gear she uses to make her amazing photographs. We would usually press for more detail. However, the extra layer of mystery only adds to the intrigue of her photography. Cole is an artist whose work forces you to question. It won’t give you the answers, but instead, it encourages you to find your own. Fascinated by her underwater photographs, and determined to get to know her better, we spoke to Cole for what has to be one of our most interesting interviews to date.
Phoblographer: You’re a self-taught photographer. Can you give us an insight into how that journey has been for you?
BC: I think that being self-taught is a plus NOT a minus. One can always pick up the technical bits as needed but the discovery and wonder of photography is most powerful when it comes from an internal voice of wonder. I much prefer to be an explorer than to read about the explorations of others.
Phoblographer: How did your path lead you to underwater photography?
BC: I see myself as a painter rather than a photographer. Polaroid film – in all its wonderful forms – was a wonderful tool that helped me achieve the painterly effect I wanted. In the late 80s, when Polaroid went under, I struggled to find a new way to achieve this result because traditional films, whether in colour or black and white, created far too much reality for my taste. It took a while but I finally realized that I could achieve the same look by using water to change and mutate the figure.
Phoblographer: You tend to favor traditional cameras from the past – why is that?
BC: This is where my inspiration comes from. While I love the feel of these cameras in my hands – the balance, the simplicity, the materials used – I also feel that by working with traditional cameras I am crafting something with my hands. That feels right to me. It feels honest.
Phoblographer: When people go underwater, their main concern is having enough air and controlled breathing. You have to balance that with creating photographs. How is that for you, and what helps you keep everything focused, both artistically and from a stance of safety?
BC: It is challenging to balance the safety and the artistic sides of underwater shoots, but it’s not that difficult in the end. The imagery one sees is hypnotic and unique so you kind of get lost in that. Once I share it with the whole team we all get involved. ONE TEAM ONE DREAM is my motto.
“What I find is that the idea that inspired me to begin is just a little seedling. Once I begin to work that seed morphs and opens up into the real thing.”
Phoblographer: Talk to us about the interaction with your subjects. How does it work when shooting underwater?
BC: I’ve been very lucky to find subjects who will come along on this adventure with me. The people I shoot obviously have very little fear of water. In fact, more often they welcome the challenge of being creative in a new environment. It’s really lots of fun. There are so many things you can do underwater that you can’t do on land. It feels like a beautiful foreign country.
The talent and I work hand in hand to get things right. As much as one can plan in advance, water changes everything. It’s most helpful to show them the progress of the shoot while I download the card. That’s the quickest way for my subjects to understand what I need. Then we go back into the water and try again.
Phoblographer: How do you design a scene? Is it something pre imagined on a mood board, or do you see what happens in the moment and go from there?
BC: A bit of both. Usually, the most successful projects happen when an idea just seems to hit me from out of the blue. It’s really not entirely true but it feels like that. I’ve read something or seen something in the path of my day-to-day life and it begins to grow in my subconscious more likely. What I find is that the idea that inspired me to begin is just a little seedling. Once I begin to work that seed morphs and opens up into the real thing.
Phoblographer: What are the biggest challenges for underwater photography? How do you overcome them?
BC: For me the biggest challenge in underwater photography is being able to see the camera settings as your goggles fog up. Aside from the physical things like getting leg cramps from being in the water for too many hours or itchy red eyes, the biggest challenge of all is PERSUADING TOP FASHION DESIGNERS TO LEND YOU THEIR GOWNS.
Also, not getting your electronic flash wet and electrocuting yourself.
Phoblographer: You like to explore timelessness in your photography, why is that?
BC: In a word, longevity. I don’t want the artwork to be dated.
“Now, I’m secure in who I am and what I do, and I want to help remove the stigma surrounding mental health.”
— Barbara Cole
Phoblographer: How much work goes into post-production? What’s the process like?
BC: The amount of post-production work depends on the project. My favourite way of working is to crop in camera but that is not always possible. For example, in two recent shows (Surfacing, 2019, and Falling Through Time, 2016) I needed to work with separate backgrounds and foregrounds. That opens a whole can of worms since now the sky’s the limit in terms of the size of the foreground figure and the cropping of the background to name a couple of things to watch out for. It’s a tedious way of working and not my favourite.
Phoblographer: Moving away slightly from your photography work, from your website, you’re clearly an advocate for supporting mental health, where does this come from?
BC: I have struggled with mental health issues all my life. I’ve had depressive issues most of my life. In my teens, I dropped out of high school and spent some time in a psychiatric ward before beginning to see a doctor and starting to get treatment. For most of my life I’ve hidden that part of me, and when I wasn’t feeling well I would isolate. Also, as a woman, working in the field of photography since the 70s, I felt that I shouldn’t show any cracks whatsoever or it would affect my career in a bad way.
Now, I’m secure in who I am and what I do, and I want to help remove the stigma surrounding mental health. While people say attitudes have changed a lot since my time, I frankly don’t see it. This is a serious and dangerous illness that prevents people suffering with it from being all they can be. I hope that by adding one more to the discussion, we can change attitudes and be able to open up and talk about things a bit more freely.
Phoblographer: Because of our current time, you had to postpone an exhibition. You decided, however, to turn your work into a virtual tour. What was the preparation for that like, and how do you feel about the outcome?
BC: I wasn’t prepared to just give up on the exhibition. A lot of work had gone into it and this was a big disappointment. The catalog had been mailed out, so we decided to use that as a jumping-off place. The show was postponed but in the meantime, here is another way to see the works. People don’t come out to exhibitions in droves these days so probably by doing the virtual show we were able to interest more people not less. I think my team did an amazing job of envisioning the way the site could be assembled using the video footage with underwater BTS shots and virtual installations. It was fun to do and came together really quickly.
Phoblographer: Finally, you’re currently working on a new underwater series, are you able to give us a little idea of what we can expect from it?
BC: I’d really love to – but I can’t. All I can say is that I’m so inspired by the results so far and it shouldn’t be too long before it’s ready.
You can see more of Barbara’s work by visiting her website.