By VICTOR SLEDGE, May 2023
Between Worlds. It’s the title of photographer Barbara Cole’s new book set to release on June 28, 2023, published by teNeues. Spanning her 45+ year career, it is also where you can trace her artistic styles changing and expanding in an ebb and flow uniquely her own.
“The title comes from the fact that my work is hybrid,” says Cole. “Neither one thing or another, always something new.”
Between Worlds is a monumental collection of work by an artist who has committed to a continuous journey reimagining, rediscovering and rethinking the photographic process and her own practice.
Cole is not a formally trained artist. “I feel my way toward the beauty of a picture,” she explains. “Since I was not trained, there was a steep learning curve involved. I went through every mistake possible in the process.”
These so-called mistakes led Cole to the magic. While her process may be experimental and intuitive, her work is anything but unsure, and that’s part of the magic you find in Between Worlds that chronicles her work in Polaroid, underwater photography, and her own modernized revitalization of the wet collodion process.
Cole is an artist that embraces uncertainty as much as she does intention. Even if she’s not clear about what she wants a final piece to look like, she knows what she doesn’t want it to look like, and that’s why the ever-blurred lines on which she works have carried her through such an extensive career.
“Photography that captures reality in a straightforward way has never interested me,” she says. “Digital photography is often too clean. It’s like a plastic surgeon has gone over the image.”
Looking through Between Worlds, you see a concerted effort to add complexity to the making of a photo. At times, it’s hard to be sure how to even categorize the pieces you see as some combine qualities of multiple processes and photos taken throughout the years. This adds an element to the book that makes the viewer wonder just as much about the photographer behind the photo.
“I took photography as a base of what I do, and then I collaged other processes over it. So it’s never just a photograph,” she explains.
Such layered and nonlinear photography makes for an experience that begs you to keep turning the page. As it relates to her practice, she may be a skillfully malleable artist, but she knows who she is, and that’s evident in Between Worlds.
“I can say now, I’m a solid collodion shooter. I know what the heck I’m doing,’” she says.
While Cole is still allowing herself to extrapolate upon the idea of being a collodion photographer, even if she didn’t land here at this point in her career, she has a team that would have supported her wherever she went.
In Between Worlds, Cole is gracious with the people who have sailed with her through her career and the people who have helped navigate her through every twist and turn of her creative direction. From her assistant, who she describes as her artistic other half, to her husband, who she’s sure is the sole person she could’ve ever imagined marriage with—Cole is clear that it’s taken a village to bring her to this point in her career.
One person, in particular, that she thanked in the book was her editor, Josephine Raab, who was the first person to give Cole the idea and encouragement to make a non-chronological book of her life’s work, some of which Cole hadn’t spent time with in years.
“I felt heard and seen for the very first time,” Cole says. “On her first run of the pagination, she had chosen the ones that I had forgotten to value.”
With such an enduring catalog of work, Cole explains that working within the parameters of galleries over the years has had a way of making her overlook some of her work, not because she’s not proud of it, but simply because galleries can make it easy for an artist to underrate work that isn’t as commercially viable for them.
Through the process of creating Between Worlds, Raab helped Cole thumb through decades of work and recognize the intrinsic value of these photographs and enduring power. Cole was reminded that those photos, too, were vital parts of her life and artistic evolution.
“I realized that at a certain point on the journey, I allowed myself to be free. I need to do that more often and work for myself and for my own interest,” Cole says.
As an artist who’s constantly giving herself the freedom to explore wherever her creative mind takes her in the moment, Cole remembers feeling worried about how Raab would be able to make work that came from different times, made with different techniques and different visions in mind, feel cohesive. However, Raab saw connections between the work that Cole didn’t recognize herself at first.
“She showed me that it was all coming from the same heart and that was very insightful. The book reminded me that it all comes from the same vision,” Cole says.
What is that heart, that throughline that’s connected pieces from Cole’s catalog that could have been created 10 or 20 years apart?
“My throughline is that I make pictures that last,” Cole says.
With a background in fashion, Cole has an eye for costume, background, and pose. She’s purposeful about creating pieces that capture a moment that feels as if it exists now, 100 years ago or 100 years into the future, and that’s what has connected her work over the years.
“I never want to be in the moment,” she says.
Cole isn’t interested in photos that speak only to the present trends. She is interested in work that tells a story as strong now as it will be in the next decade. She’s been lucky enough to have a career that allows her to test the timelessness of her work through a book like Between Worlds.
Releasing in North America this June, viewers are in for an experience to know and understand a photographer and her work on a holistic level like they’ve never seen before. The book will even include an interactive QR code experience that will offer viewers a chance to access videos going behind the scenes of Cole’s process, videos from exhibits over the years and more. It’s a rich book experience that allows viewers to see Cole and her work from every angle.
“What I’m hoping other people come away with is the dimensionality of my work. I’m hoping that this book will help connect the dots and show the entire person behind it,” she says.
Cole is walking away from the experience of making Between Worlds understanding herself in a more cohesive way, knowing that she’s created almost half a century of work that has always stemmed from the same foundation of her creative prowess and laying the groundwork for more to come.
“I’m walking away with an integrated personality,” she says. “I never understood what connected everything, but since this book, I feel whole, and I feel ready to continue the story.”
Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia. He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic.