Barbara Cole


Written by Tshepo Mokoena
Photos and illustrations by Barbara Cole
09 Sunday 09th October 2011
Photographer Barbara Cole likes to experiment. Whether it's aging Polaroid film stock, or swirling underwater shots, she's never just point'n'shoot. While her background may be in fashion photography, her work now reflects a different narrative from that often seen splashed across style editorials and lookbook shoots. There's a touch of romanticism, an intriguing exploration into the female form and a real sense of a time-invested process behind her recent work. We chat to her about the steady demise of Polaroid film, shooting underwater and her favourite spot in the world to shoot in.
Courthouse Ladies
First off, we love the warm, wet effect in your Painted Ladies series (above). Can you tell us a little more about your process with the SX-70? What's the story behind the 'manipulated surface image'?
My inspiration came from Lucian Freud. I had been given an SX-70 camera by Polaroid in the eighties and it sat unused on the shelf for many years. After seeing the way Freud manipulated the flesh in his paintings, I was inspired to create painterly effects by moving the emulsion on the SX-70 Camera. I often shot during the day and then worked most of the night (before the surface emulsion hardened) in order to achieve the desired effect. 
In many cases I had specific SX-70 cameras designed to do certain types of things. One would be hooked to my studio flash system, another was created to only do close-up work; some worked with on-camera flash. Finally I also had my Mamiya RB fitted with an SX-70 back. My favorite result came with simply using the camera itself.
How do you feel expressing yourself through photography differs from painting directly onto canvas, or using another hand-drawn medium?
First we need to make a clear distinction between photography made as art and that made for reproductive or industrial purposes. I  don't make any distinction between painters and art photographers. Painters will sketch out ideas and photographic artists use photography as their underpainting. We are all involved in interpreting our subjects through originality of treatment.
Toronto: Boys With Bikes
How do you think moving from fashion photography to your current work shapes your taste?
While there is a lot of art in fashion photography it is more of a business. These days, there does not seem to be much room for originality. And the degree of retouching in fashion photography has gotten quite out of hand. Art photography is, for me, a much more personal journey. It's great if the work sells, but that isn't the reason I do it. 
Who and/or what are your inspirations to create?
I am inspired in a general sense by figure studies, working with the figure in space. That space can be underwater, on locations that inspire or in studio with found sets. There are many artists that do this brilliantly. At the moment I've been looking at the work of Margrethe Mather. And, of course, Sarah Moon was my inspiration to become a photographer, many years ago. 
Midway, Canadian National Exhibition
What has been your favourite place to shoot recently? And why?
There is an old Belt Line where a railway line used to run, right behind my home. It is now this beautiful tree-canopied walking path. It's really lovely and changes character with the season. 
You've got some great underwater shots too. What made you want to leave dry land and start working with lenses in the water?
There was this rumour going around for years in the 90's that Polaroid was going under. I had been shooting exclusively with different Polaroid films for many years so I was understandably upset. I began to search for alternative ways to create the sensual figuratives in a new medium. Water did the Polaroid-style 'manipulations' perfectly! 
White Noise: Passage
We love that you use Polaroid cameras and film. How often (if ever) do you find yourself using SLRs or DSLRs for your work?
I use only digital for my underwater work now. I do own a Canon SLR so when I'm not underwater I tend to use my 8x10 inch Deardorff and work with glass plate collodion
With the demise (boo) of Polaroid, how do you plan to continue your work? How do you tweak the cameras and film to make them workable now that the company's gone under?
Every film that I've used since the beginning has been discontinued. It's not a matter of "if"; it's always been a matter of "when."  I can do a pretty good re-creation of the Polaroid look on the computer now - but I feel that I'm moving backwards in time. So I knew that the fun wouldn't last forever. I really do love the learning of 'process' in photography so it hasn't been as difficult a transition as one might think. I've been working hard to learn the collodion process for the past year and a half and I'm slowing building my own dialogue. It's been really exciting.
See more of Barbara Cole's work at

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  • Guest: aarkitektistah
    Fri 28 - Oct - 2011, 14:39
    you can still use your SX-70!The Impossible Project produces compatible film.