‘Underwater, All Pretension Falls Off’: Below the Surface with Barbara Cole

How do you paint a picture of timelessness? How do you capture the feeling of being weightless? Stand before the work of Barbara Cole and you’ll see.

Cole is a Canadian fine art photographer, best known for her distinctive and ethereal underwater photography. Her work has been exhibited worldwide, at venues such as the Canadian embassies in Washington, D.C. and Tokyo, and has won prestigious awards; the Grand Prize at the Festival International de la Photographie de Mode in Cannes, and third prize at the International Photography Awards in New York amongst them. In 2017, she received an Honourable Mention at London International Creative Competition for Falling Through Time — a series of captivating underwater portraits against the backdrop of English gardens. This year, Cole participated in Photo London, a major international photography fair held at Somerset House, with her Toronto-based Bau-Xi Gallery.

Falling Through Time is centrally tied to Cole’s own history as an artist: in creating it, she was effectively collaborating with her younger self. The inception of the project began twenty years ago, when Cole visited her family in London. With her Polaroid SX-70 film, she shot a series of landscapes in the capital’s iconic green spaces, including Kew Gardens, Hampstead Heath and Pergola in Highgate Cemetery, as well as the gardens of Chiswick House and Hampton Court. Upon completion, the landscape series felt somehow unfinished; it was stored away and forgotten for many years.

When Cole’s favourite type of film — using which she describes as being like “painting with a brush” — was discontinued, she started brainstorming ways to create a similar visual effect on other films through the use of natural elements in the shoot. Her instinct was to go under water, and it worked. “Water to me has become a natural lens that refocuses and reinterprets my painterly aesthetic,” Cole explains.

In 2015, when Cole was planning her next series, she had the idea of photographing statues falling from their pedestals. The statues then became people — female figures falling, like Alice in Wonderland, into another world. She decided to shoot the portraits in her pool, but acquiring appropriate backdrops proved tricky. Using huge and costly waterproof canvases would have meant preventing her models from moving freely. Then someone told her about an underwater garden created in a lake, and it hit her — she already had the perfect images: her own forgotten English gardens series.

The technical process of combining the two projects was challenging, but not impossible. Creating Falling Through Time, Cole says, was also an emotionally demanding experience, as working with the images from twenty years ago felt almost like reading an old diary. Memories came flooding back from the gardens, but when Cole added the female figures into them, the past became reimagined. “The hybrid form truly completed both projects,” Cole says, “and once the series was ready, I felt weightless.”

At first glance, the portraits in Falling Through Time bring to mind the colourful canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites. Yet, while being classically beautiful, Cole’s female figures refuse to be fixed and objectified: they are always in motion, fugitive — like Time itself. “These women do not exist in a moment in time,” Cole says, “but rather alongside it, as extra-temporal travellers who float between history’s layers.”

In addition to creating a special aesthetic, water allows Cole to move the human body in unconventional ways. But doing a shoot underwater has its own specific difficulties too: it is cold and wet, you get water up your nose and chlorine in your eyes, and the models have to be able to relax their body completely in order to move freely. “Under water,” Cole says, “all pretension falls off.”

Working together under such circumstances creates a very special bond, and Cole praises her models, many of whom she has worked with for years, for their perseverance and energy. As well as ensuring that they are as comfortable as possible (by having warm towels and cups of tea waiting when they get out of the pool), Cole encourages them to bring their own interpretations and ideas into the shoot. “The best models I’ve worked with are curious,” says Cole, “and contemplate the meaning of the work. I often ask them to imagine what they would do if they were weightless, and tell them to follow their instincts, to do what feels natural.” Her models are never just posing; they actively participate in the creative narrative.

Throughout her 40-year career, Cole has focused on celebrating female strength and beauty, both in her working relationships and in her art. One of her new projects, Shadow Dancing, explores a woman’s relationship with herself through the art of tintypes. In another work-in-progress, Surfacing, Cole takes her camera and her models underwater again, but this time even deeper. Against the mysterious backdrop of the ocean, she captures shimmering figures, arising from the depths. At first glance they seem like magnificent fish, but a closer look reveals women in colourful sequin dresses, moving up towards the surface with fortitude and grace.

Reinterpreting our relationship with our surroundings has always been an important element in Cole’s work: by viewing things through water rather than air, she invites the spectator on an evocative journey that reflects the porous nature of time. Like water, time changes our perspective: just as water can slow down or speed up our movements, certain memories seem to stretch or compress the distance between the past and the present. Memory makes us swimmers, as it were, enabling us to go back and forth in time, instead of just sinking helplessly, and art itself does much the same thing: it helps us to navigate life with narratives, sensations and new perspectives that have the power to shape our experience of the world and ourselves.

 Find out more about Barbara Cole on her website

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