Barbara Cole didn’t intend to become a fine art photographer, but serendipity intervened. Grain Editor Mari-Lou Rowley talked to Cole about her life, her inspiration and the events that lead to her amazing career. 

BC – As a kid, I was extremely depressed and had to leave high school because I couldn’t cope. I ended up being hospitalized because of my mental illness. Fortuitously, that changed my life. I started to do some modelling and met Joanne Sutton, the fashion editor of the Toronto Sun. They hired me as a model for their wedding supplement. Six months later she offered me a job as staff fashion editor—and I was just seventeen. The next thing I knew I was flying to Paris and Italy to attend the designer collections. A few years later, The Sun gave me cameras and some darkroom experience and things just took off.             

I stayed with the newspaper for ten years, but I had developed debilitating migraines toward the end of that time. I left the newspaper, sold my Sun shares and opened my own studio. Without the migraines, I wouldn’t have had the courage to do that. So that was another serendipitous turn. 

I always had an art practice but thought of them as little craft projects. I couldn’t draw so I didn’t consider myself an artist. I was a commercial photographer but I also had gallery representation. When I realized I was making more from my fine art rather than commercial photography I gladly gave up that part of the business. Art is the thing that keeps me alive and moving forward.  

MLR – Can you talk about why photography is your medium and your statement “water is my language.”

BC – I fell into photography serendipitously; I didn’t really know how to do it as I had no training. But it became more than my vocation, it became my language. I found it endlessly creative. 

MLR – What are some of the challenges of underwater photography?

BC – There are a lot! The first challenge was I realized I needed glasses, so I had to get contact lens goggles. Then you have to get into a rhythm with the model and you’re both underwater so you need to learn how to communicate. And there are the physical challenges, the cold, stinging eyes, etc. The night before a shoot I get up and check the heater, circulation, everything because the conditions of the pool are critical. 

And the costumes are challenging. I had white cotton dresses made for the “Pearls” exhibit at the ROM and by the end of the day, they turned Sepia because of the chlorine. In the “Surfacing” series I installed a bar across the pool so the models could hold on. A young woman from the National Ballet was wearing an evening gown with a long, embroidered train. She let go and fell to the bottom the costume was so heavy. My assistant had to jump in and get her out. Once a thunderstorm broke out and my assistant didn’t think to alert me until the last minute. 

So, holding my breath is the least of my problems! 

MLR – Where did you learn the techniques you use, such as underwater photography and Wet Collodion? 

BC – When I started I didn’t know a single person who was doing underwater photography with models. It was very wild west in beginning. Working with film, it took two days to view the results and judge accurately what went right or wrong. Five years after I began, digital arrived; you could view your results in real time and that made it much easier. 

What I’m doing now, Wet Collodion, was inspired by Austrian photographer Heinrich Khun. He was a pioneer of fine art photography and his pictures were magic to me. I took a weekend course eleven years ago and now make my own film and all my own processes and developers. There’s much chemistry to it. So, in the winter when it’s snowing or cold, that’s what I turn to. 

MLR – Can you talk about the inspiration behind the work from the series “Appearances, Surfacing and Shadow Dancing” that we feature in this issue of Grain?

BC – “Shadow dancing” is my modern Wet Collodion work. The inspiration—one was practical, as all of the film I loved became extinct. And I found digital too boring as the camera work can be automatic. I was looking for a challenge and it brought me back to my early days when I shot black and white film and then hand coloured the prints. This work brings me full circle to when I began.

“Surfacing” was interesting and again involved serendipity. I had a show planned around the meditative twirling dance of the Turkish Whirling Dervishes. I thought that would look amazing under water. I had the costumes and the models on set but they couldn’t spin fast enough to make a circle under water. So I went to idea number two, a spur-of-the-moment plan. I had people under water just come to the surface. My parents had died and I suddenly realized I could talk about my mental health. So the work reflects women rising, with grace, to the surface. It is an ode to the power of will and strength to overcome.

“Appearances” was my daughters Charly and Michael’s suggestion. Over high tea for Mother’s Day Mike said why don’t you try some still life. So, I shot the whole season but in my fall edit I found there was only one frame “Amelie” that I liked. That following summer we were in the midst of Covid¾another unfortunate serendipity as I couldn’t use models. Instead, flowers were my models and I anthropomorphized them to discover their unique personalities. I’m a perfectionist¾I shot all summer long and finally got it right. And I had the added bonus of a house full of flowers. 

MLR – What advice would you give an emerging artist?

BC – You have to need to do it! And you make it your own.