Cole Thompson is a fine art photographer who is based in Colorado, USA. Cole found photography at the age of 14 and although he never aspired to make a career out of it, that didn’t stop him from becoming an award-winning photographer and inspiration to others. We talked about his passion for black and white photography, the importance of Vision, and photographic celibacy.
Describe your path to becoming a photographer?
When I was 14 I was hiking in Rochester, New York when I stumbled across an old home that George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, once owned. That piqued my interest and I read his biography. Something about photography captured my imagination and I fell in love with the whole concept of photography. Before I had finished that book, before I had taken a picture or had seen that first print come up in the darkroom...I was convinced that I was destined to become a photographer. I know that can sound pretty silly coming from a fourteen-year-old boy, but that’s how I felt.
I’m self-taught, I never went to school for photography, never taken a class or attended a workshop. When I was 17 years old I planned on attending the Rochester Institute of Technology, which is one of the best schools for photography in the US. But as I was filling out the application, it suddenly hit me: “Would I really enjoy photography if I did it for a living? It might become as boring as a chore or a task…” So I decided not to go into photography and lived most of my life working in business and pursuing photography on the side. It wasn’t until about 2004, when my children were older and I had a little more free time, that I’d really get back into photography.
In my life I’ve gone through a lot of photography goals: when I was young, I created because I loved to create. But as I got older I wanted to become rich and famous from my photography. Now I’ve come full circle and once again create for the pure love of creating. It took me 50 years to learn a very hard lesson: that you cannot create for other people or to receive recognition...you must create for yourself.
I no longer care if other people like my work or don’t, because I like it and that’s enough for me.
Was there anyone who influenced you?
Like most boys growing up in America in the 1960’s we all worshipped Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Paul Strand, Wynn Bullock and others - all the great masters of photography. I spent a lot of time trying to imitate their work and trying to be like them. I even went to Yosemite where I tried to recreate exactly Ansel Adams’s images, but then I had an experience that would change my life.
I was attending Review Santa Fe and had spent the day showing my work to professionals in the field: photo editors, gallery owners, curators, publishers and other experts. I got to the very last reviewer - it had been a very long day and I’m sure that he was tired and I was tired - and I showed him my work. He quickly looked at it and then brusquely pushed it back and said: “It looks like you’re trying to copy Ansel Adams”. I said: “I am, I love Ansel Adams!” And then he said something that would change my life, not immediately because I was offended at first, he said: “Ansel has already done Ansel, you’re not going to do him any better. What can you do that shows your Vision?”
I thought about what he said: did I really aspire to become known as the world’s best Ansel Adams’ imitator? Had I no higher aspirations than that? And so over the next two years I tried to understand what Vision was and to learn if I had one.
In finding my Vision I used a practice that I call Photographic Celibacy: I do not look at the work of other photographers. I started this practice to try to cleanse my mind of other’s work and Vision. I figured if I was immersing myself in their work, mine would start to look like theirs.
Consequently I don’t know many modern photographers because I don't look at their work, because I don’t want to be influenced by their images, I want to develop my own Vision.
I’ve been practicing Photographic Celibacy for over ten years now and I still find it a useful tool. It does not completely remove the influence of others, but it sure helps.
Has there been a time when you had to take risks?
Since 9/11 as a photographer it’s harder to work in America: just recently I was photographing a power plant and I was stopped by the authorities, they just don’t understand why someone would photograph something as ordinary and unattractive as a power plant, so it’s a hassle but it’s not dangerous.
When I think of taking risks, I don’t think of physical risks but of other types of risk. The hardest thing I’ve had to do in my photographic life was let go what others thought of my work.
Caring what others think or listening to their advice/criticism is dangerous because it can change how we create. I find when creating I should only listen to my inner-voice (Vision) and ignore what others suggest.
I did a series on Auschwitz and a lot of people were critical because they said it was wrong to photograph there, that it was irreverent and sacrilegious. Other people would say: “Oh there’s no such a thing as Holocaust! You’re helping to further the lie.”
There was a time when those criticisms would have bothered me and I’d become defensive and argue my point of view. But I now have learned to say: “I don’t care what anyone else thinks, if I love what I create, then that’s enough.”
How do your friends and family feel about what you do?
I don’t think they really get it. My father doesn’t get it at all, the other day he asked me:” why do you go to Death Valley so often?” I’ll send him the images and he doesn't really see anything of value. I don't think he appreciates art or photography.
And I think black and white is a very specific taste, and I think that we are in the minority. Nowadays it seems that everyone is in love with color.
Do you think things would be different if you got more recognition from your friends and family?
No, maybe I’m different from others, but I don’t really need or want to know what others think of my work. My wife tells me what she likes and doesn't’ like and it’s usually the opposite of what I like and don’t like!
My opinion of my work comes from what I think, not what my family, friends, critics or customers think. I don’t want to be influenced by criticism and I certainly don't want to be influenced by praise. If I don’t feel passionately about an image but it’s very popular or sells well, I don't want that to change how I feel about the piece. I think praise it much harder to resist than criticism!
That’s why I don't ask other people what they think of my work - I know that might sound strange, but I really want to be independent, especially from people who I care about, who are close to me.
Where’s home and how living there influences you?
I live in Colorado, but I don’t photograph much here. Colorado has lots of very large mountains and forests, but I don’t typically create that type of image. It’s a beautiful place to live though- we have over 300 sunny days here which is nice because it keeps you very upbeat and happy.
What does a good day of work look like?
I’m retired so I don’t work anymore now: I just do photography and travel. Right now my “work” is getting ready for an upcoming Studio Tour that our city hosts, and so I’m printing out my Melting Giants portfolio, this is about the icebergs in Newfoundland.
So my typical day is working on images, communicating with people who are interested in my work and printing.
How would you describe your style?
I like to talk about Vision more than style, because I believe that Vision transcends style. I think as you look at my work you can see a variety of styles: it does tends to be dark work and I tend to use longer exposure a lot, but if you look at all of my work you’ll see several different styles.
So I prefer to talk about Vision, which encompasses style, preferences and looks.
When I look at something I immediately see it a certain way and that’s my Vision - how I see it in my head. And my task as an artist is to take what camera captures and transform it into my Vision: sometimes that’s very hard, sometimes it’s impossible but often it does work out.
When I went to Newfoundland where I photographed the icebergs, I immediately saw them in my head as this incredibly dark scene with this blindingly bright iceberg...so I had to work at the processing to get them to look that way. The images now reflect what I saw in my head, not what I saw with my eyes.
What gives you ideas and inspires you?
I have to go there and look...and then hopefully inspiration strikes! I’ve never had a project where I knew in advance what I was going to do. I go there and I look, and I look, and I look. I never study the location in advance and I never look at other photographers’ work from that area, I just go there to look and feel.
When my son was serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine I visited him. I hoped that I’d see something that inspired me, but it got to be day three and nothing had captured my imagination. I’m looking and looking and now I’m starting to worry because my days are ticking away and I don’t have any ideas.
The people were interesting but when I would ask if I could photograph them, they would put on a big smile - I call it a “camera face” - and it really didn’t reveal who the people were. So I kept thinking how do I get past that big smile?
And then an idea struck me:: I used sign language to ask the person: “can I take your picture?” and they would nod yes and I would take the shot. Then I said, again with sign language, “now with your eyes closed”. And they would look at me funny and their expression would say: “with my eyes closed?”
I created a series of portraits on the streets of Ukraine of people with their eyes closed and called it: “Ukrainians, with Eyes Closed.” The idea just came to me and it worked - I was able to get past the camera face and I think that you now see more of the real person in the portraits.
But the point is, that I must be in the location to feel the inspiration. I cannot plan inspiration. That’s what happened at Auschwitz - I didn’t plan on photographing there, but I just felt the need to create those ghosts - it happened on the spur of the moment and with only 2 hours left at the camps. But that is how inspiration works.
What do you think the future of photography will be?
It’s certainly changing because of the digital revolution. When I was a boy, you had to spend many years and thousand prints to become a good photographer, but today with digital you can get good very quickly. Some people think it’s bad, because now everyone is a photographer...but some people think it’s good, because now people who are creative do not have those barriers to overcome.
It seems that digital has made color work very popular and for a while it was argued that digital could not do great black and white. Of course it’s now a silly argument, I think digital is wonderful for black and white.
I do hope there’s a renewed interest in black and white. I don’t know if a taste for black and white is something you’re born with or if it’s something that you develop. This will sound judgmental, but I find it more serious than color. It’s easy to draw the eye with color, especially in today’s world of HDR and pumped colors, but with black and white you have to work much harder to draw the eye and hold it.
I think...I hope that there’s a renewed interest in black and white, a renaissance.
To see more of Cole’s work, check out his website: