An Unorthodox Beginning in Photography
For the past three decades, Canadian photographer Barbara Cole has been pushing the boundaries of photography. Having been called an innovator countless times, her approach to photography merges turn-of-the-century traditions with digital technologies to create ethereal works of art. Cole’s beginnings in photography were rather unorthodox, not having received a formal education in the arts, she was introduced to the medium through her early experiences in the fashion industry. She began working at the Toronto Sun at the age of 17, where she worked for the next 10 years, before moving towards photography. While with the Toronto Sun, she was involved in the process of composing and styling a scene, which ultimately made her realize how much she enjoyed creating atmospheres and stories through costume and set couture. Cole slowly began practicing her craft, further becoming interested in the painterly qualities and possibilities of photography. To this day, she lists Sarah Moon, Paolo Roversi, Peter Lindbergh and Heinrich Kühn as her biggest influences.
Barbara Cole’s ephemeral and impressionistic photographic practice has now come together in a comprehensive book, Between Worlds, published by teNeues. The book focuses on Cole’s underwater work, which has been a cornerstone of her portfolio for decades. The book also features personal reflections, forming an intimate portrait of the artist. Water, the essential ingredient of life, is both a filter and the subject in Barbara Cole’s series, where the artist explores emotion and ways of self expression. In her early works, we see that the theme of water comes across in quite the literal sense; the images feature the sea, the beach, waves ending at the shoreline, reflections in puddles…In 2002, Barbara Cole created her series, Underworld, photographing underwater, which would become one her most iconic series of work and the foundation of her photographic practice. The more she explored underwater imagery, the more she could achieve to create painterly qualities within her pictures that reference Old Masters’ oil paintings. Her inventiveness also came to play with this very series, as she combined polaroid film and waterproof camera gear.
Immersed in Water
In most of her series, Barbara Cole immerses herself in water with the models. She tenderly follows the swimming bodies with sophistication; translating these figures into poetic symbols that celebrate femininity. Many of the bodily gestures of the subjects in the Underworld series, for example, remind the viewer of female gods and perhaps of the mermaids. The images celebrate the elegant movement of the human figure as the subjects are freed from the constraints of gravity underwater. Water, both the subject and the filter, lend a sense of weightlessness to the images where the viewer is able to see and feel the act of slowing down. The subjects, with their dreamy movements, ooze the feeling of being suspended in the middle of dreams. Water, according to Barbara Cole, is
“calm and ferocious, gentle and strong embodying that collision of the real / unreal that I have long cultivated in my work. Under the water, there is an altered sense of reality. Water becomes fluid and human figures become abstracted shapes, their proportions redefined.”
Letting Go of Control
One of the biggest challenges for Barbara Cole also becomes perhaps one of the greatest gifts of her work. Water as a substance is challenging for the photographer as the light conditions cannot be predicted or calculated underwater. Although Cole has an idea of the image she wants to produce, water, as filter, inevitably creates distortion. She therefore needs to work with, trust, and perhaps give in to the water to achieve these otherworldly photographs.
Barbara Cole’s subjects, however, are not always humans. Not being able to work with models during the global pandemic, she created the series, Appearances, photographing flowers that appear to be anthropomorphized and dreamlike. The series “ask what it means to possess a form (human or otherwise) and what is considered worthy to be the subject of an artist’s attention.”
Each picture, with their delicate and blurred beauty, could be mistaken for Masters’ oil paintings, and present velvety, phantasmic scenes. When looking back, Barbara Cole says;
“I became an artist simply by taking pictures. My career in photography is based on instinct, trial and error.”
Such level of instinct and intuition is present throughout Cole’s underwater photographs and elevate the overall feeling of the graceful images.
An Exploration of Inner-Self
Barbara Cole’s long affair with light, water and the figure is furthermore an exploration of inner-self. We seldom see the protagonists in her pictures; the faces of the models are often blurred or cut-off. We, as viewers, focus on their poses and movement, which express a universal language and feeling. Thus, the photographs come to be about the artist’s own experiences, her own identity, which speak to all women. “That woman,” says Barbara Cole, “could be any woman.” Cole’s series, which she created in 2019, titled Surfacing, for example, “represents triumph, survival and self-actualization”, which is fueled by her own personal history, and “is an ode to the power of will and strength to overcome.”
Barbara Cole currently continues her artistic practice in Canada, still exploring the possibilities of the photographic medium. Her artwork has been extensively collected by both public and private institutions, and she has won prestigious awards such as the Grand Prix at the Festival International de la Photographie de Mode in Cannes, France.