It seems to be Barbara Cole’s very nature to defy convention, an innate quality that quite literally surfaces throughout her life and career. Studious but driven in her own direction, as a teenager Cole set out to become a model. Time in front of the camera piqued her curiosity as to what might happen if she stepped behind the lens. Only a few years after leaving high school, Cole built a career as the lead fashion photographer for The Toronto Sun. Being submerged not only in the world of fashion but also of art, Cole began to dive deeper into photography.
Cole’s transition from modeling to writing and then photography took place in the 70’s when only a few female photographers were working. No matter how bold and talented Cole and her peers were, conventions persisted. In the 80’s she opened a commercial photo studio, eager to take her talent to new and varied depths. However, Cole recalls that she often worked on quintessentially “female” campaigns (i.e. skin care, feminine hygiene, children) while her male counterparts received the higher paying jobs with car campaigns and the like. Not only was she at a disadvantage financially but Cole also felt frustrated by the unfairness of the gender barrier.
Nevertheless, this gender block ultimately bolstered her career. Rather than her imagination taking flight, it went for a swim. Multiple aspects led to Cole’s current underwater fine art photography, aside from industry gender constructs, having a pool was a helpful convenience.
Over the years she has refined and adapted her technique and of late Cole has moved from her four-foot-deep pool to the open ocean. For the pool shoots, Cole checks water clarity days in advance and referencing her earlier days as a fashion editor, Cole designs the costumes for all of her shows.
Perhaps it is that departure from reality, diving below the surface, away from everything that constantly surrounds us. Maybe it is the element of water itself - its fluid uncontrollability. By defying Earth’s stasis, with its rules, habits, and definitions, her underwater photography has led to a variety of partnerships. Cole’s extensive resume ranges from emotive fine-art series to active sportswear shoots for brands such as Gravis as well as a collaboration with the National Ballet of Canada. (She has yet to photograph a car plunging into water). While she’s no longer confined to “female” campaigns, Cole often chooses to work with women. Working in an unconventional environment, often cold, wet, and exhausted from staying submerged, Cole bonds with and mentors the women she works with. A “beautiful collaboration,” as she puts it, exists when women come together in new and divergent scenarios, while holding the common ideals of pursuing dreams and building something new.
In some ways this special atmosphere speaks to Cole - her refusal to follow a distinct path, her ability to adapt to and overcome anything that might try to step in her way. At this point in her career, Cole now notes and expresses gratitude for the independence she has. It was hard earned but she now challenges and inspires women, photographers, models, creative minds, and anyone who witnesses her work to dive into the unknown, even when there’s a chance of sinking, because you will come up swimming.
Cole is exhibiting with Bau-Xi Gallery at Photo London. She is also launching a second monograph of her work and showing her work at Scotiabank for the CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto. The photographer was recently the recipient of the International Color Awards 2017 and a number of honorable mentions (Tokyo International Foto Festival for her series “Figure Painting” and London International Creative Competition 2017 for series “Falling Through Time”).