Cole’s work is published nationally and is held in many collections including the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts, Monterey Museum of Art, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 1997 he was a recipient of the Center for Photographic Art, Artist of the Year Award. His work is represented by the Weston Gallery in Carmel, California.
Known for his ethereal photographs of the Big Sur coast, Brad Cole lives and works in Carmel, California, as a photographer, filmmaker, and sound composer. In his first monograph, Last Dream, Cole melds his large format images with his cinematic and musical sensibilities, elegantly revealing how his work in one medium affects discovery in another.
This conversation was first seen in the July, 1989 issue of View Camera magazine.
Brad Cole Let me show you Another Room, a three projector slide dissovle piece that evolved from about five years of imaging with a 5″x7″ view camera. The camera obscura is a dark room. Then you go in the darkroom to make prints. You could take it into the light and be done but you can also take it into another room, the projecting room. It’s a different medium, a dark room, another camera obscura. You view it in there and it allows the viewers in. It’s a dark medium. With printing you work with a negative and with the light areas of the paper, it’s already white. But when you’re working with the screen you work with a positive and the dark sections of the image. There’s something about the other side that’s interesting.
In terms of a book as a sequence most people want to look at one image and forget the last one, whereas on screen you can continuously move forward while tying things together. Your mind tends to put things together easier than when looking at a book. Plus you have the audio track to keep a flow going. The Last Dream is an attmept to transfer a particular way of working into a book.
John Paul Caponigro Interesting you’re not doing mutliple imagery.
BC Right, I’m not. It’s a progression, both Another Room and Last Dream. It feels very natural to progress in a purely visual sense with motion picture, not to derive it from language or to illustrate text. Plus now you have an additional time factor to extend it. This is what I see in the motion picture now – the distillation of time. With motion picture where something is moving or the camera is moving, there is still a set block of screen time that has a certain flow in it. Long. Short. Pieces or stills. There is a time pressure running through the images that makes one want to go with another one.
The question I’m asking myself is, “Did they really want to be in this order?” You can shape it while you’re asking the question, we all know that. But it’s amazing because if you were to take some images to an audience and ask which transitions between some of them are best, I bet that whole group would mostly agree. And they don’t even have to know about film or photography. There is something universal there, a visual language, that’s what helps start the voice going.
In the end I’ve tried everything with everything. Once you make a decision you have to find another one and another. In a way it builds itself. I’m looking for the inherent sequence that was there when I shot it. When you go to put the images together, whether it’s in book form or in a film, there are certain harmonies that happen. That’s what I’m looking for. That’s the thread that runs through and creates this voice, a composer’s voice.
JPC Do you feel you’re discovering a relationship that is there at the time or creating a relationship afterwards, an expression.
BC It’s like being in two places at once, as if the images are predisposed to have an order in sequence that is also there at the time of filming. I don’t want to explain it too much. It would explain it all away.
JPC What music has influenced you?
BC The Tibetans and the Aborigines, to me, were the first sound sculptors. They don’t worry as much about melodies and harmonies. To me Tibetian music is more about the earth. It’s about the elements. It’s about thunder and lightning. It’s a trance state. I would use any instrument, any object, in order to get an interesting sound out of it. It’s much easier for me to get abstract with music than with photography. With photography you’re always nailed down to something.
JPC Something very specific.
BC Yes, very, very specific. What I like about the book is it’s not specific, it’s trying to raise something out of it that’s mysterious. Music does that more easily.
JPC Yes. It seems like that kind of music is much more interested in the state of mind it generates and the way one participates in it than it is in fitting in within a certain form or set of conventions. What do you think the basic impulse is?
BC For me it’s a fascination with sound, the beauty of any sound. Experimenting with sound, that’s the part I like. There are so many options, that I tend to focus on the screen. If I don’t have anything on the screen I’ll make sound/sketches but I never really pull any film music together until I’ve got the screen work. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t finish anything.
Large format silver photography is the basis of all my work. However, I’ll work on something in music and that will in turn make me think differently about still photography, or motion picture. I still return to spots that inspire me to work and yet I couldn’t produce anything with the view camera that seemed to work. Sometimes, now when I return I see that what I needed was a different kind of black and white image, a filmic, moving image.
JPC Which is the purer form, the slide show or the pictures on the wall?
BC I think the screen detaches you from the object. To me that’s more useful; you get the message and you don’t fixate on the object. Do I want this object? Who signed the object? How much is the object worth? None of that comes into play. You just look at the screen and you either get the message or you tune out. That said, yes, the silver print is a very pure thing.
JPC So which came first for you music or pictures?
BC Probably music.
JPC Did you study music formally in college?
BC I always wanted to but I never did. Now I’m glad I didn’t. I took a piano class. I took film, that was probably the most important one for me. I took photography as a way to learn about film itself. Only then did I find out about the power of photography. I was already here (in Carmel) but I had no idea that this whole history was here. That was interesting. In a good way and a bad way.
JPC How so?
BC I didn’t realize that there was a vacuum around here. There’s a feeling that traditional isn’t really old. It seems very clear that Edward Weston and Paul Strand were pushing the envelope in their time. Whereas if you’re doing traditional photography now what envelope are you pushing?
JPC We were talking about that this morning. I think a lot of those notions come out a a late Romantic and largely Modern tradition. If you went back further to the Renniassance the notion that you have to do something radically different to do something original or that you have to reinvent the form or add something to the historical flow of the medium for work to be significant, meaningful or valuable. This is entirely different in other traditions. You and I are surrounded right now by Asian instruments. In Asia one is validated by one’s participation within a tradition. If you stray too far, certainly there are small evolutions within each tradition, you are looked at askance, perceived as strange or alien, qualities that are not generally celebrated in that culture.
BC They really appreciate the closeness you can get to the master.
JPC There is an immersion within tradition rather than a revolt against it. I think there is different sense of growth involved, maturation rather than evolution or mutation.
BC I can definitely find a use for the tradition and clearly enjoy it. I do seem to want to wake it up a little in my own way though.
JPC Yes, I was going to say, you do bring something new to it as well.
BC The F64 group, the west coast tradition, they would look at anything and everything. They didn’t care if it was a toilet bowl. Anything goes. Brett (Weston), was photographing “elegant gorp.” He used to call it that. Mud. One of his earliest pictures was a hand by an ear. Early on I saw anything can make an interesting photograph. The next step is what do I find most interesting to take a picture of. Forget the camera. Everything is interesting.
JPC What Alan Coleman started out with in the introduction to your book is interesting -I liked the whole piece. “It is commonplace nowadays, and all too easy, to suggest that this or that approach to photography has become discredited, or at least exhausted – that there’s nothing new or credible to be said aout the feamle nude, that small-camera street photography has little more to offer, that the meditative print from a large format negative is dead.” He continues.
BC There is a lot of beating a dead horse going on. That doesn’t mean there has to be.
JPC Hunt (Witherill) and I were talking this morning about this. I feel very strongly that none of those fields are “exhausted”, though it is very difficult to work within them today unselfconsiously. I think pronouncing them “exhausted” hangs too many things on the genre and not on the underpinnings of what makes an artist’s vision unique or that certain themes could be universal. How old is photography anyway? Roughly 150 years. If everything is interesting can anything really be passe?
BC The universal is always there, but what about cloning? That’s part of our society though. Nowadays it’s surface culture. “It looks like an Ansel Adams, it talks like an Ansel Adams, it walks like an Ansel Adams – it must be an Ansel Adams. Oh, it’s not an Ansel Adams? Well it’s as good as an Ansel Adams.”
JPC Or would we say it’s a cheap imitation of an Ansel Adams because it’s not signed by Ansel Adams? Highlight the tripod marks, cordon off Yosemite. Forget about it. It’s been done. It can’t be done again in a meaningful way.
BC I feel sorry for curators. Just imagine all the portfolios of rocks and trees that have been shoved under their faces. Oh God, not another one. But on the other hand there are people out there that haven’t really enjoyed any of that.
I do like to conduct experiments in a “serious play” manner. I’m very serious about my play. I don’t feel I’ve done anything particularly new but I feel I’m showing a different way of looking at it. That’s what I hope to do, in the future as well.
JPC Shall we go out on a limb and say you’ve imparted a “unique vision” to an “exhausted landscape”?
BC It’s hard for me to say that but it feels that way. It’s certainly what I want to do. And I enjoy it. You’ve got to push it somewhere.
Take this kelp. You’ve seen pictures of kelp before.
JPC Probably one photographed a few feet and fifty years away from this one.
BC Yet that’s just it, it’s not about subject matter. For me it has an atmosphere. It’s almost like a sound wave. It has this ringing to it, like you just struck a bell. It’s got a lot of stuff in there for me. That ‘other’ dimension is in there. And it fits with my particular sensibilities.
JPC It sounds like you’re more attached to the voice than the technique or the tradition.
BC Absolutely. I’ll do anything in any manner to get it on the film and to the print.
JPC It is easy to get caught up in flawless technique as a way of validating a viewpoint. It’s also easy to follow in a tradition, a genre, and follow it to its natural conclusion or deconstruct it using it to jump off into some new paradigm as a way of validating a viewpoint.
BC I didn’t deconstruct it, and I didn’t throw it away, and I didn’t stay completely with it. What I did is I started looking around here. I started digging for the useful stuff. Use this piece, use that part. Whatever shaped me said you can use these parts because that describes your voice. When you see a picture you identify with by a great photographer or painter you identify with that that describes part of your voice. It may be that some other artist has no relationship to that at all but would relate to someone else’s voice. It’s easier to get started in a genre because you can make something that looks like it. We’ve been shown what it’s like so we can go do that. But if you’re stuck in that genre then it’s really hard to do something different.
Regardless of the way some people might pigeon hole my work, because certain aspects of it are traditional or relate to other genres, I don’t feel stuck.
JPC Sometimes it takes more courage to stick with tradition than to abandon it in our culture.
Motion was integral to what you were trying to capture?
BC From the beginning, but then I switched to the still camera. Having the “wrong” camera made for the hybrid, the experiment. I wanted the time to move, the light, not the image. Now I tend to think in very simple terms. I use black and white film, I have paper, a screen and sound, that’s it. It doesn’t matter what camera I use, motion or still. I can make prints or put it on the screen from either camera.
JPC Is the motion in your work intended to evoke the motion of the viewer or the motion of the land?
BC I like that. I don’t always put these things in words. You seem to put it in better words than I do. I intended it to be about the land. But it ended up a time study – an expression of a different awareness of time than our usual sense of it.
JPC Is motion one way of trying to …
BC … get beyond something? Definitely.
JPC We don’t ordinarily see motion this way. This is an artifact of the camera.
BC That’s what I love about the view camera specifically. It lends itself to long exposures.
JPC What’s curious to me is that this is a record of a process unfolding but it doesn’t describe the way we see it.
BC Right. That becomes a fault in motion picture. I love motion pictures but they describe what we see almost too realistically, like our mind see it.
JPC What is it about photographic vision in particular that interests you?
BC Part of it is the highly resolved black and white print. The black and white is just abstract enough. It’s still very literal and specific. It’s the sharpest image you can make. There is something in the condensing of an image, a concentration, a distillation … That’s a good word for what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to distill everything I’m feeling and the place around me into a moment.
One could look at my seascapes and say, “He’s really into photography.” And yet I don’t feel I’m really into photography. A friend of mine once said, “Photography isn’t art, painting isn’t art, art is what artists do.” The process is the most important thing.
Your question has been the most important so far. What is the voice? I don’t know if I’ve answered that a well as I’d like.
JPC In sensing what’s there and creating something that you later sign whose voice do you ultimately think it is. Is it the lands voice? Is it your voice?
BC Around 1988, I had been doing all sorts of things including landscape, I returned to the landscape, especially the ocean, very intensely. That was definitely part of the voice. The land seemed to be influencing me to be the voice for the land. Channelling. However you want to put that, I dislike some of these terms.
JPC The New Age has laid claim to them today but they’re not new. The Greeks had muses, who were very popular in the Romantic tradition, paleolithic art shares in a similar impulse, it’s been with us all along. It’s a very interesting question to ask, is the work in the service of something else, is it personal expression, or is it a strange comingling of the two?
BC When I find myself thinking about my voice I’ve already lost it. If I make it into an image of being personal or in service of something I’ve lost direct connection again. I simply look at it as an expression of what I love to do.
However, there is something I’ve noticed over the years. Most of the traditional photography I observed seemed very up, to the light, very patriarchal, instead of being down, into the darkness, into the mother. Ansel had the tablets. That’s not a slap at the other guys, it’s just a different bent. Your dad is very connected to the earth. He’s a solid guy. He’s got his feet on the ground. He knows what gravity is.
JPC He’s very much interested in earth energy. And those ways, I would call them primal ways of relating. We both are.
BC I figured you were.
The tidepools are like that for me, you could imagine life forming down in them.
BC They have a lot more significance to me than just another pretty picture. It’s not that I’m against the light. I just want more in the minor key. I do see the land as the thing that saved my life. Not that I was going to die, but in the fact that I got reconnected. I feel a real gift in the land. I’m very fortunate to live here and be that close to nature all the time. I need it. I need to get out and walk. In the beginning I had a hard time taking pictures. I was so into the moment if I had to think about taking pictures I would feel bad about not being more in the moment. I learned I could turn it on and off. It’s an appreciation of the world, the elements, every day being different. Sometimes the ocean is full of waves that could kill you, other times it’s as smooth as glass. It’s fantastic to be there.
JPC I find it hard not to think of the ocean as a living prescence.
BC Yes, exactly, a life force. In Last Dream I use the word numina which means to me a spiritual force or power emanating from a place or object. You get a feeling of a place or the mood of a place or a person. That’s the muse that you try to follow.
JPC These things have a life of their own and one wants to participate in that lively spirit.
BC Yes. One is that spirit. The way I see it is there is a trail behind me and a trail in front of me. I know that you’re just supposed to go down that path. Enjoy it. If you come to a door and the door is closed you just keep going. There will be another.