By COLTER RULAND January, 2019
Behind her cottage in Toronto, there is a pool that artist Barbara Cole has been swimming in for the past twenty years. She had it installed so she could swim five days out of the week during the winter and the entirety of the week during the summer. She has been swimming for as long as she can remember. When she talks about it, you immediately understand that being in the water is a kind of sacred experience for her and her alone. Hence the pool. Then, one day in the late 1990s, she opened her eyes underwater and what she saw felt vaguely familiar. Everything was soft-focused and wavy. It looked like a Polaroid. “I put this pool in my backyard, never thinking I would use it commercially,” says Cole. Ever since that moment, she has been experimenting with water, capturing figures in dreamlike suspension.
Cole has been taking photographs for nearly forty-five years. In the beginning, she found that Polaroid suited her sensibilities, and she shot with their film almost exclusively. “I could manipulate it. I could add my touch. My artwork has always had a hands-on quality.” She found that the films Polaroid produced were “non-literal” and allowed her to incorporate her very personality into her work. She did everything she could with it, and shot almost exclusively in black and white, admiring the mystique found in lack of color.
Then things began to change. “In fact,” says Cole, “back in the 1970s, when I was working as a photographer at this newspaper, we were shooting only in black and white, which I found magical, and then suddenly they told us that we were switching to color.” She compares the inner turmoil she felt to forcing a novelist to write a technical manual. She must have thought it inhuman. On that very night, however, Cole had her first blind date with the man who would later become her husband. All she could talk about was how she could possibly work with color when color was so realistic. She felt she was being forced to accept the colors of reality when all she wanted to do was deconstruct reality. On the second date, the man brought with him two hardcover books by the Swiss painter Johannes Itten about color theory. “I went, woah, what?” says Cole, in the middle of laughing. “This guy listened and tried to solve my dilemma. Needless to say, I got around to color.”
The first color photograph that Cole ever really liked was by French photographer Sarah Moon. “She hit me over the head. The colors were lush. The situations were not fantasy but personalized in a way that I related to so much.” Cole began to use grainy films, painting onto them, appliqueing them. She used the Time-Zero film from Polaroid that was instant but within a day it could still be manipulated to look like an oil painting. “If that film survived,” says Cole, “I’d still be using it.”
That film disappeared in the late 1990s, but it birthed her “second career” as a photographer producing the ethereal work she is known for today. She felt “high and dry” at the time, left adrift in a market that was veering more toward the journalistic (and realistic) than she liked. “That wasn’t to my taste at all,” she says. “I ended up beginning on this quest to express myself with a film that I could control, that could never become discontinued.”
“It was in the end of the 1990s that I discovered the pool,” says Cole. Not “a” pool but “the” pool as if she had found El Dorado in her own backyard. Having loved how she could manipulate Polaroid films, she found a similar freedom with slow shutter speeds underwater, which could consolidate the lapse of time into a single image, creating weightlessness. The figures in her first series “Underworld” appear timeless and drifting in fabric. I will also refrain from using the word “fantasy” to describe her work. A better way to describe her work might be that it is phantasmagoric. Her subjects seem suspended in the middle of dreams. The textures are grainy, velvety even. There is a prevailing sense of ease.
“My work has never been about reality,” she says. “But it’s not fantasy. It’s what I think about, and I put myself into these pictures. That woman could be me. That would could be anybody.” While she might be using modern techniques and digital cameras underwater, Cole’s work is steeped in physicality. She uses turn of the century cameras and modern tintype processes. For her series “Shadow Dancing,” she makes her own film and shoots on metal with an old 8x10 camera, blending the imagery with digital color photography and mounting them in a kind of shadowbox. “They’re magic,” she says. The result is a perfect marriage between the digital and the physical, between tradition and experimentation. “I’m totally digital underwater, and then I come above water and suddenly I’m completely analog.”
In fact, she gets bothered when people think her work is fabricated solely by computers. Her work is anything but a fabrication. A work like Imprint Blue might appear to be digitally altered to the point of abstraction, but the image, like most of her work, is actually the result of water, mirrors, and time. What can be more fundamental? If anything, Cole is sluicing reality to find its most precious materials, hoping to slow us down and run our fingers along its subtleties and impressions.
But working underwater presents its own obstacles. One has to have a source of water relatively close by: access to the ocean or a neighbor’s pool or one’s very own. The model has to breathe, regulate her body, is working in a different state of gravity. Water, according to Cole, brings out an honesty between herself and the work. Both Cole and the model get cold, their eyes get blurry, they are holding their breath and fighting against weightlessness. In these moments, all pretense falls away. One cannot pretend underwater. The hair will move with whatever ripple that passes through it. The body cannot remain still. Maybe this is what Cole sees in womanhood: a subtle albeit persistent energy. There are forces acting against her body, but her body is a force, too.
“I see things underwater, to tell you the truth,” says Cole. “In real life I’m very agitated, nervous, I have a lot anxiety. Underwater you have to breathe rhythmically and it becomes like meditation.” To be underwater is arrive at a place of serenity, and Cole hopes to share this inner self through the shadows and reflections of her work. “I always seem to be examining a person examining themselves. My most fulfilling pictures are the ones where a person is examining their inner self.”
Cole takes immense pleasure in her own work, which is itself a radical stance. It is easy for artists to fall prey to self-loathing and self-criticism. Cole might not be free of these things, but she doesn’t give off a persona of the conflicted artist, but rather one that is brimming with energy, ready to share with the world pieces of herself. “I do it for myself,” she says, “and I always want others to get it.” She is an artist with this unquenchable need to share with others. So it cannot be selfish. If anything, she is selfless.
Now Cole must wait for winter to end. When we speak, she reminds me that it is -5 degrees outside. “I hate it, I hate it,” she says. “The minute I hear August has arrived I start getting depressed. Starting the end of August the leaves are falling into the pool, the water needs to be monitored more closely, it will get murky, and life ends,” she says before abruptly laughing at the melodrama. Cole’s long and decorated career has seen these seasons come and go before, but they are no less of a nuisance. She is ready to start new projects, alreadying thinking up ideas, even designing costumes for future photoshoots. She wants to be in the water. By winter’s end, there will be no more leaves in her pool, the water will be warmer and clearer, and life for her will begin anew. “When April comes, my heart leaps.” WM
Colter Ruland lives and writes outside of Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Territory, Cosmonauts Avenue, Fiction Advocate, Goodnight Sweet Prince, The Thought Erotic, Switchback, and elsewhere. He is working on his first novel.view all articles from this author