The watery art of Barbara Cole makes waves

Barbara Cole’s underwater photographs give a feeling of buoyancy or weightlessness to everyone who looks at them.

Waves  (photo credit: BARBARA COLE)
(photo credit: BARBARA COLE)
A multidisciplinary approach to the arts is hardly innovative. People have been doing that for decades now. Even so, Barbara Cole’s ability to use a definitively precise and finely calibrated means of visual documentation in a manner more reminiscent of a far less structured form of aesthetic representation is both intriguing and delivers impressive results.
The 65-year-old Canadian photographer currently has a bunch of works on display at the NOX Contemporary Art Gallery in Jaffa. NOX takes an appropriately eclectic approach to art, frequently displaying a wide range of offerings, in terms of style and format, taking in photography, painting, drawing, mixed media, digital art, sculpture and art installations and video art.
While Cole employs sophisticated photographic equipment, she does so in conditions that make the end product anything but certain. That, for her, is what it’s all about, and she is looking to keep the ephemeral ethos going. “That’s the thing that’s so magical. Before I went underwater, I used Polaroid film for at least 16 years, because it wasn’t realistic.”
Going “underwater” generally involves immersing herself in a swimming pool and snapping some young figure, as the eddies and bubbles add textures and planes and fetchingly skew the visual bottom line. Using camera technology that produced instant results, thereby obviating the photographer’s ability to take a hands-on role in the image development process and “forcing” Cole to accept the quality of the picture the camera emitted, was just what she was looking for, or the opposite of what she didn’t want. “I never became an artist because I wanted to document anything,” she continues. “I really didn’t like the precision of photography. I felt that wasn’t my aesthetic.”
Cole likens her approach more to painting than to photography. “Painters, when they have a canvas, they give it an underlayer-underpainting. That layer is my photography. The photograph itself is underpainting.”
COLE FIRST took pictures in water when she was offered the use of a friend’s parents’ swimming pool. That was prompted by a development in the unforgiving world of finance, which necessitated a change of tack. “The only reason I went underwater was because Polaroid went bankrupt, particularly their SX-70 film [was no longer available]. There was no longer this all-exposed means to shoot an image with a camera, I felt, until I went underwater.”
Placing herself at the mercy of the feral dynamics of an aquatic environment fired Cole’s imagination, and all was wonderful along the creative continuum, until practicalities eventually kicked in.
“It was very exciting at the time, but I realized that I needed my own space. Taking pictures underwater is messy, and you have to control your own things, and you need to keep your model warm, and the goodwill of a girlfriend’s mother only goes so far,” she chuckles, “having all these people tramping through the house, dripping everywhere.”
She needed her own space, where she could oversee the way the environmental conditions panned out – that is, of course, only out of the water. Her submarine line of work was put on hold for a while, until she managed to get an aquatic playground of her very own. “I later moved into a new house, never thinking for a second I would put a pool in the back yard, but it just happened a few years later that I did that.” That was purely a recreational decision. It took a while for the possibility of a reprise to her earlier artistic endeavor to dawn on her. “I did not think I would use the pool for photography. Then a kind of light bulb went off – that was over 20 years ago. But I realized it was such a powerful way of expressing myself.”
Back in the day, there weren’t too many photographers shooting underwater, but for Cole it was a perfectly natural milieu, both on a personal and a professional level. “I have been swimming my whole life. I swim five out of seven days a week, and I have done that for 50 years. I think I know better what things look like underwater than they do above water.” It is all grist to her artistic mill. “When I do my morning laps, that’s when I make my show decisions about things I have been working on.”
There is something of a chic aspect to Cole’s work, which comes across in the items on display in Jaffa. That probably owes something to her experience as a fashion photographer. Some of the prints convey a sense of a sort of submarine catwalk, with the models doing their best to proffer their elegant threads to the viewer, ethereal liquid surroundings notwithstanding. Cole also appears to have made the most of the confines of a swimming pool, and her pictures impart a sense of space that one would not normally expect from a domestic outdoor body of water.
In Cole’s line of work, there are challenging logistics to be negotiated throughout. At some stage, she thought she could overcome the spatial constraints aspect by working in the deep blue sea. However, she soon discovered she had very little control over the ebb and flow of conditions, such as gusts of sand suddenly spiraling up into the shot space. While Cole embraces the unexpected – in fact, that lies at the core of her artistic philosophy – certain practicalities also have to be taken into consideration, if she is going to end up with something worthy of public viewing and creative statement. “I understood that, if I didn’t have a good month to spend and a lot of resources, I have to do it a different way.”
A location shift was the order of the day. “I ended up shooting the background in the ocean, and my friend had a very deep pool, and she was so kind to let me use it for a summer. I shot the women in this environment, and then I cut them out. They are trailing these really long dresses. I need like 10 feet [of water], and I got it.” The aesthetically pleasing, and intellectually arousing end product is there for us to see at the NOX gallery right now.
ALMOST HALF a century after she first plunged into a pool, camera in hand, Cole is just as keen to keep on treading water, physically and artistically. It is an ongoing adventure into the unknown for her. “Every show is different, and every time I shoot I don’t know how the water is going to be, or how the people are, or what the lack of gravity is going to do. Sometimes you don’t even need to know that.”
Cole feels there are gains to be had all round, for all involved in the creative or appreciation process. “It’s just a feeling of buoyancy or weightlessness that makes everyone kind of take a deep breath and relax when they look at the picture.”
In truth, there are all sorts of dynamics in Cole’s work, ranging from tranquility-inducing efforts to gentle textures of her Underworld series, which exude a painting-like aesthetic, to the far more energized White Noise project. Either way, Cole transmits a powerful narrative that draws the viewer in to the work in question, and offers us a stimulating experiential ride for our money.
The Barbara Cole exhibition closes on December 31. For further information: