For more than two decades, Brad Cole has used a cinematic and musical visual vocabulary to address the mystery of human presence, producing exquisite silver prints, films, and sound projects. His work is held in public collections including Bibliotheque Nationale‚Paris, The San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Cole is a recipient of The CPA Artist of the Year Award. His work is represented by the Weston Gallery in Carmel, California. More images can be seen at www.bradcole.com. Jim Kasson interviewed Brad at his home.
JK: I always ask people how they came to photography.
BC: I was studying filmmaking about ‘82 or ‘83, and enrolled in a photography class to learn more about exposure and development. I had never owned a camera before that time. You might say photography found me. Many people say they were hooked on photography in that magical moment of seeing the image coming up in the dark, for me it was first seeing the wet silver print in the light. Though I’m mostly self-taught in all media I use, I did attend community college for photography, and failed the first class! I didn’t have much patience for the technical side. Ron James helped me find more intuitive ways to work, from exposing film in simpler ways than metering everything, judging the light with your eyes. He had a box of old example negatives. Students could hold them up and compare to see what a good negative looked like, discuss what had happened for the exposure and development. I borrowed Ron’s 8”x10” outfit, and became a lab assistant so I could use the darkroom more.
JK: Photography became your life after that.
BC: For over two decades, there has been no turning back. I also kept up my interests in music and film.
JK: What instruments do you play?
BC: For music by itself I play horns and percussion, however, what I do most is create soundtracks for my films and some other works. The recordings are sometimes more sound than music.
JK: And the final forms of your works are?
BC: Photographs, films, and sound recordings. With the exhibit Another Room, I use three slide projectors. The work integrates large-format photography into a film-like experience with continually dissolving images and a soundtrack, a slow, mystical place between stills and film. This work led me into the The Last Dream book project. The Last Dreamis a sequential book, a non-literary narrative. There are a few protagonists to lead us‚ as if looking through their eyes, on a journey. With a momentum and a sense of music, there are changes of pace from brisk to blur, slowing to silences‚ in a continuing flow. I’m proud of what A.D. Coleman wrote in his foreword essay, Dark Chamber Music. Allan read the book photographically, musically, sequentially, and more. I’d like to thank Kathleen Barrows for her generous support of the book, and for being a good friend.
JK: Did you make the images specifically for The Last Dream, or did you go back and look at a body of work and pick out the ones that said what you want to say?
BC: Most were existing images. I made a few more time studies once there was sequential flow and I could see what was needed.
JK: Are you working on more books?
BC: I have several new book dummies going. I’m working on a series of three or four Sea books, a Remnants book, and some others. The most complete one is my next step from The Last Dream sequential work. The working title is A Charting of Places. It includes some Iceland images but is not about Iceland. It will be a shorter book than The Last Dream and much slower.
JK: Tell me what you mean by slower.
BC: The Last Dream has several changes in tempo. A Charting of Placeshas a more consistent, stately movement. Musically, it is more of a procession or a dirge with a rather dark, heavy pace.
JK: Any advice to people who want to do a book?
BC: Make a dummy. Make it for yourself, not for a market, and it will show you what is needed and what’s not necessary for a your concept.
JK: Do you spend most of your time with still photography?
BC: Large-format negative-making and silver printing is the root of all my work. The films and sound come from that way of seeing and doing that is characteristic of the view camera. Sometimes I go out thinking, this is going to be a great motion picture place, but the filming might lead me into doing stills instead. The music is always moving around in my life. I’m always at work on my recordings, so I can arrange music with the visuals.
JK: You do things in parallel?
BC: Sometimes to my own detriment! I respond to influences in new directions all the time. I want to stay with a creative roll while it’s going. I like to bring a childlike approach to nature. It is amazing. It is mysterious, even more so when observed with a child’s eye.
JK: You keep coming back to the ocean.
BC: About 1987, I made my first significant tide pool image, which triggered hundreds more, usually with the same basic composition‚ a pool, a contained area, a strip of ocean-horizon in the distance with sky. A glimpse of the sea’s vastness connects to the tide pool. This series became intensely personal to me; I felt pulled so strongly. One day I recognized why I had been doing so many tide pools.
JK: What was that all about?
BC: When I was seven years old, I experienced a traumatic period in my family. There was a lot of pain, and I coped by floating, softly, meditatively, in the deep end of the swimming pool, slowly sinking down‚ until I would surface for my next breath, over and over. For a whole week I did this as much as possible. Oddly, the next thing our family did was to take a trip to the sea. I’d never seen the ocean before. Driving through the hills, I got my first glimpse of the horizon with that huge, glimmering ocean opening up in the distance. I had just spent the last week, a seven-year-old child, floating in what must have been for me an amniotic re-visitation. And suddenly, right there was this sublime power: the ocean, connecting the human to the water, and much more. Not until I was completely immersed in making Another Room did I recognize this symbolism. In that period of my childhood there had been enormous sorrow, yet while surrounded by the water, like floating in space, I felt connected to the life source as well as to the sphere of all human sorrow. My trial by sinking to the depths combined with the discovery of the ocean allowed me to carry and hold this feeling of the universal human mythological story from a very young age.
JK: When you look at your pictures, like the image on the cover of The Last Dream, are you conscious of something that is mysterious, incomplete, unexplained, or transcendent?
BC: That particular picture, Time Study, is more the exception. The intention was to make a portrait of my friend. She moved to shake her hair. I saw the motion and tripped the shutter.
JK: It may not have been what you were trying to do in the first place, but when you saw the image on the proof sheet, it resonated. You created this by accident, but the feeling of this picture is in consonance with a lot of the other pictures in the book.
BC: Yes, recognition is the important thing, whenever it takes place. Photography is among the best art forms for the happy accident. I prefer to make room for these things to come in.
JK: Does that apply to sequencing images?
BC: Most times, yes. There are images in The Last Dream that I didn’t expect to end up there, but they were needed rhythmically, or to bring about some transformation. The earliest Sea image, Numina One, was made in 1983. Numina means spiritual forces sensed at a place or within a person or object. This image refers to Sea, and later on it’s used in The Last Dream, but it also predicts my work on Remnants and the staining/ toning/chemical prints.
JK: You have a water series that’s not made up of seascapes.
BC: Yes, River describes a visual relationship between the flow of water and place, charted by currents of memory. When the river waters here in ‘97 became an unstoppable force, slowly rising, enveloping the street and sidewalks right up to my studio door, I was fascinated by this power of nature and had to go out and try to describe something about the river afterwards. I went out with a still camera but it wasn’t enough. I got a little boat, and a friend and I went out on various rivers filming with motion and stills down slow dark rivers, lagoons, and forests. I love slow motion made with real black and white film. A video screen can be very helpful for exhibitions, but to see the real silver grains buzzing with their organic aliveness is a mesmerizing treat for the eye. In this work, I’m often working with 16mm, or Super-8 high-speed cameras, running film up to 250 frames per second. Like a slide dissolve, slow motion film can describe another dimension of consciousness or open an awareness to parallel worlds.
JK: How many different series do you have?
BC: More than eight landscape-related, plus a portrait series.
JK: What’s the portrait work like?
BC:. The series Portraits from Haight Street, San Francisco, and Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles consists of formal classical portraits of gothic young people, photographed with a 5×7 view camera. I used to think if I carried the big camera around people would be more open to having their picture taken. I got tired of that and learned to just walk up and ask. There would be a short discussion or a long discussion. I would have my camera nearby and we would find a suitable spot, or even collaborate on the location. Longish exposures; the shortest is a 15th; most are around a half-second to a full second. That work was my introduction to Robert Heineken, then at UCLA, one of my first trips into the photography art world. We introduced ourselves and Robert says, “Lets take a look.” I set them all out and he gets very quiet. He walks around the room, slowly taking them all in. After a bit he says; “Well, you’ve got three things going on here, a documentary aspect, a high level of craft, and a strong personal connection that comes through.” He asked what I was doing with these in LA, so I said I was trying to show them to museums, but they all wanted to see slides first. Robert very generously made a call to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and before the end of the day I was showing the portraits there. He also called his gallery and the owner there was absolutely perplexed about why Robert had advised her to look at them! She asked me to give her my “spiel”. I still can’t believe my response that day, I laugh now but I was nervous then. I said “People that don’t get jazz, ask what jazz is about, and the standard answer is, well…..if you have to ask…”
JK: Who are your influences?
BC: The Russian director Andrey Tarkovsky’s films are very powerful visually to me, mysterious, well-crafted, and poetic. Photographically I start with Timothy O’Sullivan. His landscapes have an element of mystery beyond most other photographers of the day. Learning photography here in Carmel, I was close to the work of Wynn Bullock and Minor White. I feel freer taking from the dead artists.
JK: I’m scared to copy from the people who not only are alive but who I also know.
BC: It’s better for me when people say that my work has influenced them! That’s wonderful rather than just a copy, which just ends up diluting all landscape work even more. That said, all of art is based on stealing from other artists. The key thing is how well you steal. I think I took in some works, and then went out and had recognitions of my own. Mostly I was influenced more by images from many people rather than any particular artist’s whole life’s work. The important thing is that our influences be well-digested, that work be taken-in for what it communicates, not for what it looks like.
JK: It’s a truism that the way to make good photographs is to make a lot of bad ones. Talk to me about how you experiment.
BC: Experiment to me is an invitation to be happy with failures from which I learn. Experiments are begun, they evolve, and new ideas come into play. It doesn’t matter whether you are out to find the next paradigm shift or just trying to see what something will look like if I try this, or sound like if I do that. I experiment to bring these different things together. How can I bring them together? Should they be brought together? Well that didn’t work, what a waste of time that was. But sometimes there’s a little seed, ah ha, this is going off in another direction. That’s the fun part. Or, what happens when these two things are put together? The word symbol means to throw two things together. The way Another Room was created was to take one image, put it in one slide projector, put all the other pictures in another slide projector, and dissolve that first image with all the others, one at a time, until the right couplings appeared‚ based on shape, form, light, and also psychological and mythological interactions. Then, the process advances from image to image.
JK: That’s methodical, like Edison trying to figure out what to use for the filament of the light bulb.
BC: Yes, it is methodical, and recognition and judgment make the call. A few images form a phrase, and then multiple phrases become passages. Sections appear, and then might rest awhile until finding a place in the completed sequence, through an integration of what Tarkovsky calls the “latent sequence.”
JK: What kind of experiment would be more inviting of failure?
BC: In the Time Study image, when I noticed my friend making a movement, she wasn’t ready for a picture, and she didn’t know that I was. Bzzzz-click. One full second. What happened on the film just then? There could just as easily have been nothing useful there.
JK: Your complicated toning work has to be experimental.
BC: I started using almost any chemicals and attacking prints, especially if somebody had written not to do this or that! I have tried quite radical chemical reactions without wanting to destroy prints completely. Most do get ruined though, so it’s only the ones at the very edge of destruction that have what I’m looking for.
JK: And maybe you can’t reproduce them.
BC: Yes, these are unique, one-of-a-kind prints. The photographic surface becomes a place where an event or several events take place with chemical, metal, and color reactions.
JK: Some of your heavily-toned prints have a recognizable subject, and the toning emphasizes the subject or creates a mood. Other prints are almost entirely abstract, and the toning itself becomes the main subject.
BC: None of my photographs are about the subject matter. They’re about reaching beyond the subject matter.
JK: That’s true to some extent of any good photograph, right? Time Studyis about the subject and something else. It’s about a particular woman. Maybe she can represent all women because of the blurring…
BC: I read it as a dream-like or ghost-like figure.
JK: The ghost figure is grounded in an actual subject. With some images that you make, even though they’re allegorical and about more than just the subject matter, I look at them and relate to the subject. In other images, even if I can relate to the subject, they’re more abstractions.
BC: I see what you mean, some subjects lend themselves better to abstraction for me.
JK: What are you experimenting with now?
BC: One new project’s working title is Chemical Field Prints, which are non-photographic works created entirely with traditional silver-based photographic materials. They bypass camera, lens, negative, even photographic exposures. I pour, brush, layer, and remove the chemicals/metals, working them directly into silver gelatin photographic paper. The process can take hours, days, weeks, or months of re-layering, removing, and adding metals. They are gestured works, yet I pay close attention to the micro-surface inside the silver gelatin, which ends up densely and infinitely colored with deposits of sulfur, iron, copper, gold, and selenium. They also reference my interests in painting, mostly the abstract expressionists, there’s even a few new works that include oils.
JK: How has the photographic community on the Monterey Peninsula been important to you? How have you gained sustenance from it and given sustenance to it?
BC: Everyone is free with technical knowledge, and they’re always ready to help. I’ve gotten a lot of education having lunch with someone when I needed just enough information to get to the next step. I taught workshops at various places, many with my friend Dick Garrod. Rod Dresser brought me in to work at Ansel Adams studio for a year or so, and Virginia let me use Ansel’s mural enlarger for the large-scale gothic portraits. It was fun to feel Ansel’s presence while working in his famous darkroom.
JK: Tell me about the Icelandic work.
BC: Iceland grew from a connection with the volcanic landscape and its relationship to our origins. Think of amoebas forming, life down in the glurp eons ago‚ that sulfuric smell of Mother Earth bubbling up, starting life. I came back with two different series after my first trip there. TheIceland series is about that primal, volcanic essence, the shape of that land‚ undulating and unnervingly quiet fields of moss, or stacks of rocks receding off into the distance of a vast, black lava desert. The Islandiaseries started unexpectedly as soon I landed. I immediately felt I had been there before. Then I met Heida, a magical Icelandic friend, and we also resonated with an immediate familiarity. We went out to make some pictures together, and this unexpected series, Islandia, turned into something more. It was as if forgotten memories were emerging about an earlier period in Iceland when there were horses and no automobiles.
JK: Islandia 1 is timeless. There’s no clue to what century it was made in the background or way she’s dressed or even the photographic look of it.
BC: That’s exactly what I wanted, and it’s something I also found very difficult to do. We drove around together looking, exploring. We’d been out all day, and it was very steamy around the moss and lava there. As I wondered where I might want to set up, I looked over and she was standing right there, where she is in the image, and I said; “Don’t move.” There was an unclear but strong intuition there that seemed to pervade the whole series.
JK: How did your fascination with long exposures begin?
BC: From seeing some of Wynn Bullock’s images. There is a way a camera can see that we can’t. It’s not recording the water moving back and forth; it’s recording the light.
JK: The time exposures compress motion into a single image. Your slide-dissolve work in Another Room reverses the process.
BC: I’m interested in other dimensions, the unseen that supports what we see. To make images that take 24 minutes to expose, and then to dissolve them together for 24 seconds or more is quite an unusual process, it’s like stretching time and then bending it with light. The long dissolve can be a powerful tool; my shortest dissolve between two images is 10 seconds, the longest about 50 seconds. While I was immersed in making Another Room, I picked up a copy of The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and recognized several parallels to what I had already been doing. I had been working with mythological elements, finding links embedded in our bodies and minds, in cultures all over the world, in history, in the land, in the ocean, in the stars.
JK: Do we see that in the Remnants series?
BC: That’s both pre- and post-human.
JK: Apocalyptic? There’s evidence of former human presence.
BC: From the Earth’s perspective it doesn’t matter. The Australian Aborigines say that everything of consequence has already happened and that we are living the after-effects of those events. With that in mind, the ruins become markers in time, like a vanished past silently dissolving.
JK: Did you start taking pictures for the Remnants series and then realize what they were about, or did you get this idea and then go out to make pictures to fulfill the idea?
BC: I’ve always been someone who looks forward and backwards at the same time.I like the idea of the pre-human, the tide pools, some of the Icelandic material. But I’m interested in the other direction as well; the post-human feeling found in ruins or remnants. I was also influenced by an old lens I came upon in 1985 and the way it vignetted on my 5”x7” camera. The series continues to develop organically.
JK: Your series are ongoing?
BC: The Sea and Remnants have been ongoing for more than twenty years. Others are complete. Except for the shorter ones, most of the films are yet to be completed. I see moving images as part of a coming paradigm shift in art. I’m interested in film mostly as a visual medium. I’m not as interested in making films from stories.
JK: Do you like working in the darkroom? You must.
BC: I both love it and hate it. It can be the most demanding and exacting of all the things I do.
JK: Do you occasionally work digitally?
BC: I like my Nikon D200, but I don’t love it the way I do my beaten-up century-old 5×7 wooden camera. I have tried some digital printing. I have images that wouldn’t exist had they not been partially processed digitally; that’s a gift, why not use it? The overexposed Icelandic portrait was the first time I used a computer to process an image. There wasn’t a shutter in the lens, I covered and uncovered it with my hand, so exposures weren’t very predictable. Not that long ago, I would have just left the image alone. It’s a horrible, flat negative and I couldn’t do much with it in the darkroom. By scanning it, it looks amazing.
JK: Black and white prints are the hardest thing for digital to do.
BC: Yes. Digital doesn’t achieve the full range of tones, and more importantly the smooth gradations between tones, that silver does.
JK: And the quality of the surface. You can’t duplicate the surface of a silver-gelatin print. Inkjet prints can approximate a platinum or palladium print.
BC: I agree, the surface of a silver print has a microscopic scale that brings an exquisite impression to the human eye. Technological advances have shaped the history of photography. The important question is: “Is it good art?” Everyone wants to know what’s new and hot. I’m interested in that, but to me the most important thing is what’s lasting and nourishing. My real job is to look, whether it’s gazing out to sea, moving downriver, or seeing a person in front of my camera- to be ready for something extraordinary to come in. I don’t mean the holding-the-camera type of ready. Almost always, it has to do with just being alive to what is around you.