Amazing Fine Art Photographer
Who is Cole Thompson?
Brent: Cole, can you give us a little bit of background your photography and your life?
Cole: I grew up travelling; my father was in the Air Force and we travelled a lot. When he retired, we landed in Rochester, New York and it was there, as a 14-year old boy, that I discovered photography. I decided that photography was my destiny; I believed in that as a child and I still believe it today.
I believed that photography was my destiny; I believed that as a child and I still believe it today.
I was out hiking one day with a friend when we stumbled across an old house and my friend told me that it had been owned by George Eastman. Living in Rochester, everyone knows about Kodak and George Eastman, and so I read his biography. Before I had completed that book I had decided that I was destined to be a photographer. It sounds kind of silly saying, but before I’d even taken a photo or seen a print come up in the dark room, I just knew that’s what I was supposed to be. From there I taught myself photography and it became my life. At age 17 I decided I would not pursue photography in college because I feared that if I earned my living as a photographer, I would lose my passion for it. So instead I pursued business and built a career and family. Because of those responsibilities I didn’t have much time for my photography until 30 years later when picked it back up after 30 years.
Brent: Tell us why you moved to Colorado and how has that affected your photography?
Cole: We moved to Colorado from Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a crazy place, a crowded place, an expensive place and it wasn’t the best place to raise a family (I’ve got 5 children) and so we moved here in 1993. I know that a lot of people might imagine that with all of the beautiful scenery in Colorado that it might have affected me, but it has not. While my roots are in landscape, and I still do some, I really don’t consider myself a landscape photographer.
Cole’s Favorite Images
Brent: Thanks, Cole. Now, let’s have a look at your favorite images. You’ve sent me three of your favorite images that you’ve taken in the past. Let’s run through them quickly. Can you tell us about the photos and the thought that went into creating these images?
Cole: The first one is “The Angel Gabriel” which I created in 2006 and it’s of a homeless man on the Newport Beach Pier in California. It was a long exposure and so it appears that he’s standing there alone with only a couple of ghosts in the background.
… a homeless man on the Newport Beach Pier in California.
There are two things significant to me about this image. First of all was the experience. I was shooting the pier using long exposures, it was crowded and I was using a 30 sec exposure so that almost all people disappeared. While the images were interesting, it was missing something, a subject. So I was looking around trying to find someone who I could use when I saw this man, Gabriel, digging some French fries out of a trash can and eating them. I went over and I said “excuse me? Would you help me with a photograph?” He looked at me distrustfully like we might look at a homeless person, I told him “No really, I just need you to help me with a photograph and if you do, I’d be happy to buy you lunch.” So he agreed and we took a couple of photos which were just “okay.” Then he wanted to take one holding his bible, and this is the resulting image.
Afterwards I took him to the restaurant at the end of the pier, it was very nice restaurant and the people were looking at me because I’m bringing in this barefooted, dirty homeless person. We sat down and I said “please, order anything you’d like” and he responded that he hadn’t had a steak in years and that he’d like it with mushroom and onions. When the server brought his steak, Gabriel picked it up with his hands and ate it. All the while the restaurant staff is giving me the “why did you bring him in here” look.
During our conversation I learned that he was Romanian and so am I and so we had something to talk about. I learned that his family had escaped Romania when the dictator Ceausescu fell from power and that his father lived nearby.
After the meal and as I was thanking him, I said “Gabriel, give me your father’s address and if I sell any of these images, I’d be happy to send you some of the money.” And he said “No, why don’t you give it someone who really needs it? I’ve got all that I need.” And Gabriel walked away with his only two possessions: a bedroll and a bible.
The second reason this image is so important to me is that it was the first time that I really exercised my vision and “created an image” rather than “taking a photograph.” I believe that a photographer tends to document reality while an artist creates. This was the first time I felt that I had done that.
…the reason that this image is so important to me is that it was the first time that I really exercised my vision and had “created an image” rather than “taken a photograph.
Long Exposure Equipment
Brent: That is awesome. I just love this image. Gabriel is right in the center of the pier and there are a couple of long exposure ghosts in the background. Tell me Cole, what kind of filter did you use to photograph this? What are the technical aspects of this image?
Cole: For my long exposure work, I typically use two filters stacked one on top of the other. One is a Singh-Ray Vari-ND; it’s an adjustable ND filter that can go from 2 to 8 stops of neutral density. It works like a polarizer and this is important to because you can open up the filter to let enough light in to compose and focus, and then you can stop it down for your exposure. On top of that filter I’ll stack a 5 stop fixed ND filter which gives me 13 stops of neutral density, which is usually enough to give me a 30-second exposure in bright sunlight. I’ll sometimes stack a 10 stop filter in place of the 5 and that allows me to get several minutes of exposure in bright sunlight.
Brent: Do you have a filter holder in front of your lens?
Cole: These are circular filters, I use an 82mm and then fit each of my lenses with a step-up ring so that one set of filters works on all of my lenses. I use large 82mm filter because when you stack them they protrude and vignette the image, so the wider filter helps minimizes that.
Artist or Photographer?
Brent: Just back to the part where you talked about the artist; the difference between the artist and the photographer. When did it start coming into your mindset creating art as opposed to taking photographs?
Cole: Early in my photographic life I was not conscious of such a concept and I’d always considered myself a photographer. In fact, I felt that as a photographer I had a duty to not modify the image. I see now that is silly because everything we do as photographers modifies the image; starting with the lens that we choose, our perspective, how we expose it and how we process it. Everything changes the image. So in a sense, there really is no way to document reality and to capture the truth. A photograph can capture many realities and many truths.
Around 2004 and shortly after I came back to photography, I met a woman who became my mentor. She was an artist first, who began using photography as opposed to me who was a photographer first, and who later become an artist. She continually tried to get through my thick skull that I shouldn’t limit myself to simply taking photographs, but rather I should create images. Over time that concept slowly started to sink in until I woke up one day realizing that I wanted to create. It was a gradual process and it took me about two years until I felt comfortable thinking of myself as an artist.
…I shouldn’t limit myself to simply taking photographs, but rather I should create images.
If someone asked the old Cole the photographer if he “manipulated” his images, he would respond “No!” and be insulted at the very thought of it. But if you ask me now, my response is “Yes! I manipulate what I see with my eyes, into what I see through my vision.” That is what makes an artist, an artist; they create.
Brent: That’s great. Let’s run through the second image, the one where it looks like someone is in water.
Cole: This is called “Swimming Towards the Light.” Many people think this was photographed underwater, but it’s really my daughter swimming laps in a hotel swimming pool. I’m on the 5th floor looking straight down and this image catches her just as she is about to touch the edge of the pool where the light is. And that’s why it is called Swimming Towards the Light. This was taken with a 1/10 sec slow shutter speed to introduce a little bit of blur and movement in the image.
It’s a very simple but conceptual image. I never like to tell people what my images mean to me or what they’re supposed to mean to them, but I do find it interesting to hear what others see in them. I recently gave this image to a friend who is undergoing some pretty serious cancer treatment and it has come to mean something very special to her as she fights her battle. She relates to this image very personally.
Brent: Just going back to the artist within you. You’re actually creating art that obviously mean something to you but it may mean entirely something different to someone else. They will see this image, have a look at it and it’ll create some kind of emotion in them that is entirely different from what you actually created it with.
Cole: Absolutely. And oftentimes my images don’t have any special meaning to me but others find meaning in them. That’s why I don’t like to tell people what they mean, or even hint through the title what the image is supposed to mean. When you look at my image titles, you’ll notice that most are simple numbered titles. I just don’t think that it’s my role to tell people what to think when they look at my art.
People often ask what my images mean. Sometimes they really don’t mean anything, they are just beautiful images.
Brent: And does this image of our daughter in the water mean something to you?
Cole: No, it’s just an image that I saw it in my mind and created. It doesn’t have a deeper meaning for me, but that’s not to say that it can’t have a deeper meaning for other people.
Brent: Great. The last image you sent me, it looks like a concentration camp.
Cole: Yes, this image is “Auschwitz No. 14? and it’s my favorite image from the series “The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau.” A few years ago I was visiting my son in Ukraine who was serving in the Peace Corps. Because we were so close we decided to visit Poland and the family engaged in discussion to decide what to do while there. I knew that everyone would probably want to see Auschwitz-Birkenau, but I was secretly hoping that we wouldn’t go because I don’t like sad places. But the family out voted me and so off we went.
…it’s my favorite image from the series “The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau.”
We began with the tour inside buildings where they show you the meticulous records that the Germans kept on each prisoner. I found myself looking at a photograph of a man, who was looking straight into the camera…into my eyes, and all I can think about is how he was then murdered shortly after this photograph was taken. It was surreal and depressing. As we continued through the tour, we saw the infamous piles of clothing, glasses and shoes. I am not prone to claustrophobia but I just could not breathe and I signalled to my family that I was going outside for air.
Once outside, I could breathe easier and I began to walk slowly while looking at my feet. With every step I could not help but wonder who else had walked in these same footsteps and were now dead? I began to wonder, perhaps metaphorically, if their spirit still lingered there today. And then suddenly it hit me: I needed to photograph the spirits of the people who lived and died there. Unfortunately I had less than an hour before the tour bus was going to leave.
So I ran from location to location photographing ghosts. People want to know about the ghosts, are they real? Did you create them in Photoshop? Did they appear in the images afterwards?
I created these ghosts using my long exposure techniques and they are really the other visitors at the camp. They didn’t know I was photographing them or turning them into ghosts. In fact, that was my major challenge, getting people to walk into my scene so that I could photograph them. People are just too polite and when they saw me with my tripod and my camera, they would stay out of the scene. They could not appreciate that I actually wanted them in the shot!
So I used various techniques to trick them, these are techniques that I had developed in Japan under similar circumstances. I would use a remote shutter, turn my back away from the camera and act like I was talking on the phone. People would gradually wander back into the scene and then I’d use the remote shutter release to get the long exposure.
…So I used various techniques to trick them that I had developed in Japan under similar circumstances.
I was able to create 16 different images, each with a different type of ghost. My two favorites are Auschwitz #14 and Auschwitz #13 which depicts ghosts leaving the gas chamber.
Even though I did not want to visit Auschwitz and I had not intended to photograph there, this turned out to be great experience because I felt creatively inspired.
Brent: So, is this a series that you’ve exhibited?
Cole: Yes, I just finished exhibiting it at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and in a few weeks I’m going to Croatia to attend the opening of this exhibition in Split.
Inspiration & Mindset
Brent: That was a really moving story, Cole. Now, let’s move to the next question about inspiration and mindset. How do you stay inspired and where do you get those from? Do you have any rituals you do before you go out and photograph?
Cole: Well, I don’t really have any magic answers about how to get inspiration. For me inspiration comes externally and so I just have to be prepared to recognize it.
I find that I no longer am able to photograph around my own hometown. I’m just too caught up in my day-to-day activities, family, business, work and everything else. So for me, I need to get away. I might take a couple of days and drive somewhere. The key for me is that I need to have my mind freed up of my daily worries and cares.
I also find that when I read the Edward Weston Day Books (his diaries) they inspire me and put me in a creative mood. The other thing that inspires me is listening to the Beatles. I’m always amazed that they, upon reaching success, didn’t try to ensure continued success by maintaining the same style. They were willing to take a risk and try something new. Listening to their music inspires me to apply that same philosophy to my work. I don’t want to get stuck doing just one type of work nor be classified into one category such as a landscape photographer.
The other thing that inspires me is listening to the Beatles.
For me, it’s all about seeing. I know that great images are all around me, if only I can see them!
Brent: Yeah, that’s really important. For me too, getting away is one way that I kinda recharge the batteries a little bit and you know get away with the daily activity and then it seems like the creative energy stars coming back out of you when you remove yourself from the everyday activity. Now Cole, can you tell us a little bit about the process of creating images. Do you pre-visualize what you want to photograph? Or do you just go with the flow? Go to a place, see what happens, see where the inspiration comes from and then shoot it?
Cole: I do pre-visualize, but only once I’m at the scene and I see what I’m going to photograph. At that moment, I generally know how I want the final image to look and my challenge is to take the image my eyes see, and force that into the vision that my mind sees. Now sometimes when I’m processing I might also stumble upon an idea or a look and my work can take a different direction there.
Brent: So, when you’re there you know what the end result going to be like?
Cole: Almost always I know what I want my images to look like.
Brent: Tell us a little bit about the process you go through. From start to finish; from capturing the image, processing it, printing it, and then displaying it.
Cole: I have my own “Rule of Thirds”. (I don’t like Rules of Photography so I make up my own) My Rule of Thirds says a great image is comprised of one-third vision, one-third the shot, and one-third processing.
My Rule of Thirds says a great image is comprised of one-third vision, one-third the shot, and one-third processing.
The vision is what drives the other two-thirds. It drives the shot because when I know what I want the final image to look like, that directs how I capture the image. Likewise with the processing, which is where I do the majority of the creative work on the image, the vision drives it.
My workflow is extremely simple and I typically use only six tools:
Black and white converter
Dodging and Burning
I think it’s also instructive as to what I don’t use:
Special Ink Sets
Custom Paper Profiles
Most of my work is done with dodging and burning and for that I do use a Wacom tablet, which gives me great control and allows me to dodge and burn the smallest details.
Brent: Okay. So, you start with the raw image, process it, and then do you actually save that as JPEG before you print? Tell us about the printing; the actual display part of the whole of the process.
Cole: I convert my raw image into to a TIFF and never use JPEG’s except for my web images. I use an uncompressed TIFF because the image will not degrade each time you save it, which is what happens with a JPEG.
I first use the RAW converter to do my basic brightness and contrast adjustments and save it to a TIFF. Then I’ll use levels to set my white and black points. Then I dodge and burn in great detail to highlight things I want emphasized and to burn down things I don’t want the eye to focus on. I also use the clone tool to remove imperfections in the image.
Lastly comes my printing secret: adding contrast. I’ve learned that once an image looks on screen, it will look flat when you print it. Everything looks good on the monitor because it uses transmitted light and that makes the blacks look deep and gives you wonderful contrast. However when you print the image it will look disappointing because we see the print with reflected light, which pales in comparison to transmitted light.
So, what I do is this: Once the image looks good on the monitor, I need to pump up the contrast beyond what looks good on the monitor. This extra contrast can help the print look almost as good as the image you see on your screen.
This extra contrast can help the print look almost as good as the image you see on your screen.
Presentation of Fine Art Photographs
Brent: Do you use any special fine art papers? How important is it to display them properly?
Cole: I typically use only two papers; my matte paper is Hahnemuhle Photo Rag 308 and for my glossy prints I use Epson Exhibition Fiber which has an F type surface, reminiscent of the papers I used in the darkroom.
Those are the only two papers I regularly use. I see many people on a lifelong quest searching for the perfect paper and I just don’t think there is such a thing. Find a paper you like and move on.
What I find as important as the paper is how an image is matted and framed. I think it’s important to have a lot of white space around the image to present it properly. Also having the image under glass improves the blacks and contrast in an image and so that’s why I like to ship my prints in a clear bag, it not only protects the prints, but it also makes them look good when the customer takes them out of the box!
Brent: When you matte your prints, is that a normal white matte around the black and white image?
Cole: A simple single white matte with the image centered. I don’t care for a bottom-weighted matte.
Brent: Is there a certain size that you print your images at? Or you just print them according to what the customer wants?
Cole: I’ve become so busy that I just don’t have the time to print and matte different sizes, so I’ve standardized on three sizes:
An 8X12 print which is matted to 16X20
A 10X15 print which is matted to 20X24
A 20X30 print, no matting
By standardizing my sizes, I can streamline my production process and make my life so much simpler, which becomes important at a certain point in your photographic business. At first you find yourself photographing 90% of the time and doing business 10% of the time. After a while you wake up to realize that the tables have turned and you’re now spending 90% of your time on business and only photographing 10% of the time!
By standardizing my sizes, I am able to keep things simple, minimize my costs and maximize my time behind the camera.
What’s One Thing You Wish You Knew When You Were Starting Out?
Brent: That’s great. Cole, tell me what’s one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out? And what is that one thing that you’ve done that has made all the difference in your photography?
Cole: I am self-taught: I’ve never taken any photography classes or workshops. One of the great benefits of being self-taught was that I never learned the rules of photography. It was only a few years ago when someone criticized one of my images for not following the rule of thirds that I learned what that was.
I felt a bit silly not knowing that, but once I heard this “rule” I thought that it was pretty silly that anyone should be constrained by such rules. I was so glad that I had never learned the rules of photography and I’d advise someone starting off to not learn them. But if you’ve already learned them, consider them vague guidelines that should almost always be ignored.
If you want to create exciting work, do what makes sense and never because it’s a rule!
The other thing I would tell somebody starting off is to define success for yourself before you begin your journey. For many years I followed the assumed definition of success which is: sell prints at high prices, get representation by a big name gallery and publish a book. For years I chased that definition but didn’t find it fulfilling. Sure, accolades are great in that moment, but at the end of the day you go home and you realize that it’s only you, your art and what you think of it. So, I started asking myself “what was my definition of success?” Coming up with my own definition was one of the most important things I have done and now I chase my definition of success.
Brent: So, for you, success is doing something you love?
Cole: Exactly right. For me success is being able to create work that I love and to answer to no man, no critic, no buyer and no gallery owner.
In addition people pay me enough – to purchase my equipment and to travel the world.
For me success is being able to create work that I love and to answer to no man, no critic, no buyer and no gallery owner.
Best Advice from Cole
Brent: That’s awesome. I love your definition of success. What is the best advice that you can give to my audience? People who have DSLR camera, they’re getting into photography; they may even have been in photography for a little while and just getting really enthused about what they can create. What’s the best advice you can give them?
Cole: Don’t listen to other people. We brand people experts but the truth is that there is no one more expert about your vision than you. So, don’t listen to others.
I’ll hear people giving advice to others: “Here’s what you should do with your image…” I don’t listen to others advice and I never ask for advice about my images. I know what I want and I pursue it.
I don’t listen to others advice and I never ask for advice about my images.
So do your own thing and have fun with it!
Education and Learning
Brent: That’s a very good advice. That’s awesome. The last question will be all about education and learning. Where should someone starting out go to get some information and how they can learn the fastest way?
Cole: Well, everybody learns differently so no one way of learning would fit all people, but I enjoy learning by trying things, experimenting and making mistakes.
You have to know your learning style, but I would tell people to just go out and try things. Can classes help? Sure, they can help but I think that today’s cameras are so good that you don’t need to focus on the technical before you can pursue the creative.
Many of us gravitate towards the technical because it’s concrete and easier to learn than the creative. Learning to find your own vision is a lot more conceptual, vague and harder to know how to go about it. Learning how to use a camera is easy, you read the manual. But I’ve never seen a good manual on how to find your vision and yet without vision, the most technically perfect images are cold and lifeless.
…and yet without vision, the most technically perfect images are cold and lifeless.
Brent: That’s great, Cole. What do you think about knowing your tools so that you can actually create that vision? Shouldn’t you know the technical part of the vision you got in your head so that you could actually go out and create?
Cole: If I were doing it over again, I would rather work on the creative and develop the technical as I needed those skills to complete my vision. I really do think that we put too much emphasis on the technical. I hear people say “you really can’t create until you know your tools.” Well, there’s certainly some truth to that but the other side of the coin is the person who spends all of their time learning processes that and they never get around to learning to be creative.
If I were to do it again, I would focus 80% of my efforts on developing my vision and 20% on the technical
Brent: Okay. We’ll end this interview by asking, how can people get hold of you if they want more information?
Cole: Well, they can go to my website which is http://www.colethompsonphotography.com/ and they can email me at email@example.com. I answer every email.
Brent: That was an awesome interview. We’ve gone through quite a few things.
We’ve touched on your background, your favorite three images, you’ve given us a whole bunch of really good advice, your definition of success, your process, your vision, how you think of yourself as an artist instead of a photographer, breaking the rules, I really like that one.
I just really want to thank you Cole for taking the time and talking to me and getting this great information out in front of my audience or people that are thinking about getting into photography, especially when it comes to the art of photography, which is really close to my heart.
Final Thought – Important!
Cole: I appreciate you having me on your blog. You know, I had another thought I’d like to add: a lot of people who are just starting off with photography may be like me: I turned to photography because I didn’t believe that I had any creative ability and I felt that I could compensate for this by becoming very good at the technical. And I became very good at the technical, but that wasn’t enough to create great images.
Through my struggle and search for my vision, I have come to believe that everyone has this ability to be creative. Sometimes it’s buried under a lot of “stuff” but it is there.
Through my struggle and search for my vision, I have come to believe that everyone has this ability to be creative. Sometimes it’s buried under a lot of “stuff” but it is there.
Brent: Thanks, Cole. That’s a very inspirational thought. Thank you very much.