Creating the Image: A Continued Discussion with Cole Thompson

Harbinger No 1
Cole Thompson Harbinger No 1, by Cole Thompson

MG: Some of your images, particularly in your Ceiling Lamp series, look almost like illustrations or graphics rather than photos. Do you use a different process to achieve that look, like HDR, or is that simply how they looked?

Ceiling Lamp, Mourning Dove Ranch Colorado, by Cole Thompson
Cole Thompson

Cole: Some people say these look like Escher, but that’s just my dodging and burning. The dodging and burning in these ceiling lamps brought out the textures and shading. These things had to be really under-exposed because you have a glaring light bulb under them, so it takes a lot of dodging and burning. This is one that I have in my house…

MG: What about this one, with the skeleton? The shading makes it look like HDR.

skeleton, by cole thompson
Cole Thompson

Cole: Again, just dodging and burning. I had to bring down the leaves with a lot of burning to get that contrast.

MG: That may be what I’m seeing, where the dodging and burning has overlapped onto the bones. Frequently, HDR produces a “halo” effect that looks similar.

What projects are you working on now?

Cole: I’m still working on the Fountainhead series a little, and on the Harbingers; they’re so difficult to obtain that I’ll probably be working on those for years. But I’m really ready for a new project, and I haven’t found one yet that gets me excited.

MG: Who are your influences, which currently working artists do you like?

Cole: Growing up, Ansel Adams was my ‘hero’. Later in life, and even to this day, Weston has become a bigger influence; I love his work, but I read his day-books constantly for a source of inspiration, for the process… and i just get so inspired when I read those Mexico years and what he went through, so he’s a huge influence.

One particular influence who got me started down the path of long exposures (which we didn’t discuss a whole lot today, but I’d say 75% of my work these days are long exposures) was Alexey Titarenko, a Russian, who did this series of long exposures of dreary Moscow settings, and that got me really excited about 8 years ago.

I credit him with my being able to shoot “The Ghosts of Auschwitz & Birkenau”, because I had been so practiced in long exposures. I went on this tour, a one hour tour at Auschwitz, and I wasn’t planning on photographing. I guess I had in my mind that it would be disrespectful. But this sudden inspiration hit me, not to photograph the camps as dead, empty places, not as historical museums, but as a place where the spirits of the “lived” still haunted the camp. So in 45 minutes, I got these 15 images using his techniques.

MG: How do you find a new project?

Cole: I keep a list of ideas, but in truth, I’ve never taken one of those ideas and executed it. The ideas that I’ve got… I’ve always stumbled upon them. The “Lone Man” series, I was shooting long exposures of the coast, and these tourists would move into my frame, and instead of yelling at them I thought well, at least I’ll make a test exposure… so when they move out of the way, I’ll be ready. So I do this test exposure, and I notice something…. the guy is standing still for 30 seconds.

Lone Man No 8, Bandon OR, by Cole Thompson
Cole Thompson

And then I start noticing a lot of people are doing that, and I notice this phenomenon that when you stand at the edge of the ocean, and you contemplate how big the ocean is, then you start contemplating how big space is, and you start contemplating things like eternity and can’t help but ask yourself, “How small am I, compared to this? Do I make a difference? Do I die and that’s it?”  You start asking these deep questions. So, I started noticing then when people stand at the edge of the ocean, they start contemplating things much bigger than themselves… so I started the series, and it was all by accident.

Or the ceiling lamps. I was standing in line at a hotel in Akron Ohio, waiting to check out, and I look up and see this lamp. And I said, wow… that looks so different from standing right below.

The Harbinger. I’m out with my son, we were photographing those hills in Harbinger #1, but there were no clouds. It was like 110 degrees in the middle of Utah, we’re packing up and heading back, and I see this one cloud, moving very quickly, and I’m looking at the hills, and I’m thinking “In a minute or so, that cloud’s going to be right over those hills”, so I ran up the hill, set up, and took two shots, one of which worked. And I thought, “I’ll never see a single cloud again, this will never make a series”, then all of a sudden, wherever I go, I’m seeing lone clouds.

Cole Thompson Harbinger No 11, by Cole Thompson

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Warren Willson

Another great read!  I’m almost lost for words over Gabriel’s story, too. More please? :D

Wook AC

That was a lovely read very inspirational. I hope you can get more of this type of content onto the site. Thanks!


I would like to add that this article was quite moving. One of my favorite forms of photographic artwork is the Black and White. I have always reveled at the work of Ansel Adams and the like. I had never heard of Cole Thompson before reading this incredible article. I cherish the B&W 11×17’s that hang on my wall of my daughter through the years. To me, B&W captures tones, highlights, feelings, and expressions that, for me, don’t have the same depth and warmth of their color counter parts. In my learning, a true understanding of color theory and light begins with the basics of monochromatic design. Thank you for presenting this series of articles. I have truly learned a bit more about this artist, his passion for his work, and the beauty that is B&W photography.

Alfred Lopez

@Matthew Gore Most excellent. I’m sure many photographers have something in common with Cole Thompson, but after reading this, I feel more at ease with the decisions that I make before, during and after shooting. I thought that photographing “artistic opportunities” was a process and concept that I couldn’t really share with anybody with the exception of my wife and muse, Carline as well as people like you. I often look at “popular photographers” (which I won’t mention any names) who seem to shoot *just to shoot* and try to create art out of those photos as opposed to looking for art first. Though I will be covering this in my last part of the “Styles Series” (yes, I know; I’ve been in a slump lately) I will say that “HDR doth not an art make”, and it’s use has been done ad nauseum, but it’s appealing because, generally, people are attracted to bright and shiny things.

Cole’s technique, though consistent, is applied with thought which allows his art *to be* art as opposed to a product of a turn-key workflow. I appreciate Cole Thompson and all who apply themselves as such and I appreciate you, Matt, for bringing this to light.

Thank you,