Creating the Image: A Continued Discussion with Cole Thompson

So what I’m saying is, I usually stumble on them… they find me.

But the key is, I talk to a lot of people who say, “I’ve got this project that I’m working on, but I just can’t get motivated,” and I think “Well, you’ve got the wrong one then, pal!” The right one is the one where you get out of work early so you can go out and shoot it, not the one where you’ve got to force yourself.

MG: How large do you usually print? Are you limited by the 35mm format?

Cole: I have about 3 sizes that I usually, print, an 8×12 a 10×15, and whatever that is [perhaps 20×30]. I pre-cut mats, have them computerized cut, and then I’m ready for whatever is needed. My images tend not to be about sharpness, so going with a larger format would be a waste. Often I’m doing long exposures, with multiple filters, the image is being degraded just because of that.

There’s no part of that image [pointing at an even larger print of The Angel Gabriel] that’s about sharpness. That’s a crowded pier… it’s as crowded as Disneyland on a busy day, but because it’s a 30 [second exposure], you can see only a few people, and only just enough to register, and i think that people fall in love with the story of that image as much as the image itself.

The Angel Gabriel
Cole Thompson The Angel Gabriel, by Cole Thompson

This came up recently because someone was criticizing digital because there’s no variation in the print: if you print one, you can print a thousand and they’re all identical.  I was explaining that that’s not necessarily true. There used to be an Ansel Adams exhibit of Moonrise over Hernandez and how over the years it changed because his interpretation of it changed. If you look at The Angel Gabriel, this image has changed over the years a great deal… it’s gotten darker and more vignetted, so this concept that digital removes any artistic element because they’re all simple machined reproductions… it’s not so.

I always go back and look for him. Never seen him, never met him since.

He was a homeless guy. I had shot the pier without anyone standing there, and it was just kinda empty, so I was looking for someone. I saw him… he was reaching into a trashcan and pulled out these french fries, he was eating these fries out of the trash can, and so I traded him. I said, if he’d stand in for me, I’d buy him lunch. So we shot a couple, and he said that he wanted to do one, and his concept was that he got his Bible, he wanted to hold his Bible, and that was the shot that we used.

Then afterwards… this was at the Newport Beach Pier in CA, there were these nice restaurants at the end, I’d say 3 or 4 star places, so we go into one, and they’re looking at him… he’s barefoot, he’s dirty, and they’re looking at me thinking, what’s this? So we sat down and I ordered lunch, and I said “Gabriel, order anything you want.” And he ordered a steak with mushrooms and onions, and they bring it out, and he picks it up in his hands and eats it.

So it turns out that he was Romanian and I’m Romanian, so we talked about that and at the end I said, he had told me that his father lived there in LA, I said, “Gabriel, give me your Dad’s address, and if I sell any of these, I’ll send some of the money to you.” He said, no.. send it to someone who can really use it, I’ve got everything I need” and he walked off with his Bible and his bedroll, and that was it. Never seen him since.

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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,