An interview with “Master of Black & white- Cole Thompson”

Cole Thompson. A photographer discovered by the world as an artist. Over the years I have had admiration for his creations, mostly the way he approached the fine arts. This photographer, Cole Thompson, is an award-winning black and white photographer who has been creating some of the most amazing and brilliant BW images that I know over the years.  His art has been published in many leading photography magazines and has received multiple international awards. Through this interview he shares the journey of a photographer who became an artist by gaining his own internal success, which inspires me most” Gmb Akash

Gmb Akash: Please introduce yourself with a brief summary on how you become a photographer?

Cole Thompson: My name is Cole Thompson and I love black and white photography.  I discovered photography when I was 14 years old and would spend countless hours looking at the work of the great black and white masters: Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul Caponigro, Paul Strand, Wynn Bullock, Imogen Cunningham and others.  There was something about these b&w images that drew me in and would give me chills down my back.

I fell in love with photography and for 10 years I did nothing but study, photograph and work in the darkroom.  It was my entire life.

I am self taught, I learned photography by reading, experimenting and making mistakes.  My brother and I took over the family bathroom and turned it into a darkroom, and I worked to earn money to purchase used cameras and darkroom supplies.  As the years progressed I became technically proficient but found myself simply copying the work and style of others.  I was an imitator.

In 2004 I started working in digital and it was this new technology that helped transform me from a photographer and into an artist.  Much discussion was going on about Photoshop and what a photographer should and shouldn’t do to an image.  It got me to thinking about how everything we do as photographers changes the image including how we frame the shot, the focal length we choose, how we expose the image and how we process it.  After a lot of thinking and struggling, I concluded that what I really wanted to do was create images, not capture photographs.  I wanted to change the image and bring into compliance with how I saw it in my head.  This is what I call my vision.

So after much hard work, and with a change in my thinking, I transformed myself into an artist.

Gmb Akash: By observing your art world only in black & white, the question arise – why have you made this particular affection & how?


Cole Thompson: “Why only black and white?”  I don’t really know for sure, it has just always touched me and drawn me in.  Perhaps it’s because of the era that I was raised in, the 1950’s.  Here is a thought from my artist statement:

I am often asked, “Why black and white?” I think it’s because I grew up in a black-and-white world.

Television, movies and the news were all in black and white.

My heroes were in black and white and even the nation was still segregated into black and white.

Perhaps my images are an extension of the world in which I grew up.

For me color records the image, but black and white captures the feelings that lie beneath the surface.  People ask if I’ve ever worked in color, and the answer is no; I only see things in black and white.

Gmb Akash: What are your prior attentions for creating continual variety on your work? If we discuss about The Harbinger series, the Lone Man or the Ghosts of Auschwitz – to establish any of your works how you choose any theme/subject for making interesting series?

Cole Thompson: Early on in my career people would tell me to pick just one thing, focus on it and become known for it.  Some suggested that I should choose landscapes and stick with that.  However that advice never rang true for me, I did not want choose one thing and I believe that you must do what you love or you’ll never be successful.

I have continued to explore many different subjects and styles as my vision constantly changes.  I have done landscapes, but I’ve also done many other things including people, objects, long exposures, portrait work and a variety of other things.  To me this is stimulating and exciting, and I’m so lucky because people pay me to do it!

I’ve just been finishing up on my project called “The Fountainhead” in which I combine the first two loves in my life: architecture and photography.  In this series I’ve created distorted images of buildings by photographing their reflection off of a flexible mirror.  I twist the mirror to create sleek and fluid images from ordinary square buildings.  This work was inspired by the novel The Fountainhead which tells the story of an architect that refused to bow to the social pressures of his day.  The book is all about achieving success on one’s own terms, a concept that I believe in and love.  So this series is really a tribute to the book.

Another idea that just struck me was Ceiling Lamps.  I was standing in line at a hotel when I looked up and saw a ceiling lamp from below.  It intrigued me because it looked so different when I stood directly below it.  That was the start of my Ceiling Lamp series which I think is a bit light hearted.

The Lone Man came about quite by accident.  I was shooting long exposures at the beach when a man moved into my field of view, and instead of just waiting for him to leave I decided to make a test exposure.  As I looked at the image I noticed that he stood still for the entire 30 second exposure, and his body language said he was doing some deep thinking.  I began to notice this behavior in other people as well, as they stood at the edge of the world and looked out to sea they seemed to be contemplating things much greater than themselves.  Here is what I say about this in my artist statement:

Something unusual happens when a person stands on the edge of the world and stares outward.  They become very still and you can almost see their thoughts as they ponder something much greater than themselves:

Where did I come from?

What is my purpose?

What does it all mean?

What is beyond, the beyond?

Do I make a difference?

Is there more?

At that moment they are The Lone Man, alone with their thoughts about matters much greater than themselves.  People are affected by this time of meditation and they often vow to make changes in their lives.  But these commitments are usually short lived as such weighty matters are replaced with more immediate concerns:  Should I eat at McDonalds or Burger King and should I try that new green milkshake?

Another spontaneously project was The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I was on a tour of the death camps when the idea suddenly hit me to portray the camps as a place where the spirits of the dead still walked.  My problem was that the bus was leaving in less than one hour.  Inspired I ran from location to location, working feverishly to create this body of work.

I pursue new projects when the inspiration hits me and I fall in love with the idea.  I long ago learned that it’s a waste of time to pursue a project that you’re not in love with, because it will be a constant struggle and the work will lack passion.  Better to be patient and wait for something that inspires you comes along.  Many people tell me about their projects and their struggles to get motivated, I have some advice for them; YOU HAVE THE WRONG PROJECT!  When you have the right project you will be energized, excited and impatient to work on it.

Gmb Akash: As a photographer what is the most complicated issue you experienced & how you overcome?

Cole Thompson: My biggest challenge is fighting the desire please others and to meet other people’s expectations.  Since we are human it’s natural to want to please, to have our work liked and to be thought well of.  But when this desire overcomes our individuality, our sense of self and our desire to please self, then we are headed for failure or at best an unfulfilling success.  Most of us are too quick to accept society’s definition of success; fame and fortune.  We forget to stop and ask ourselves what would make “me” happy, what do “I” want to achieve with my art, how do “I” define success?  My experience has been that purposely seeking fame and fortune is the least likely way to achieve success.

I’ve recently changed my resume to express how I feel about success:

My art has appeared in hundreds of exhibitions, numerous publications and has received many awards.  And yet my resume does not list those accomplishments, why?

In the past I’ve considered those accolades as the evidence of my success, but I now think differently.  My success is no longer measured by the length of my resume, but rather by how I feel about the art that I create.  While I do enjoy exhibiting, seeing my work published and meeting people who appreciate my art, this is an extra benefit of creating, but this is not success itself.

I believe that the best success is achieved internally, not externally.

Your definition of success may be different, but I always suggest that artists begin their journey by defining what success is to them.  Otherwise they may find themselves going down a path that is ultimately not fulfilling.

Gmb Akash: A brief paragraph on “One day Journey with photographer Cole Thomson”? 

Cole Thompson: I like to focus on my subject and my vision, not on my equipment or the processes.  So I shoot simple and light, carrying just what I need which consists of my camera, 3 lenses, a set of ND filters, a polarizer, cable release and tripod.

If I’m working on a portfolio then I go out with a purpose, but if I’m between projects I just go out and wander.  In either case, I do not pre-plan and I just have faith that in any situation, in any weather or with any lighting, I will find some wonderful opportunities.  I shoot by my gut feelings and do not follow the “rules” (there should be no rules in art).  I do not analyze my images but instinctively know what I want and what I like.  I like to experiment and so I shoot a lot of exposures when I’m out, because the last thing I want to do is get home and find out that I missed an opportunity.

I work alone, I cannot relax if someone is with me and I feel like I’m holding them up, even other photographers or my family!  And I must not have any other commitments for that day because I do not want to feel rushed or have to quite at a certain time.  I cannot be creative if there are any distractions or constraints on me.

My best work is produced when I have several days to wander about.  For example each year I go to Bandon, Oregon and spend 10 days photographing the coast.  I have gone there for several years now and it always gives me something new to photograph.  I also go to Death Valley every January and just wander about for a week, it’s a wonderful feeling to have just one thing to focus on.

Many people ask me how many images I take before I get a good one, and I’m guessing it’s around 250.  Some people think this is a bad way to work; they prefer to plan everything out, sit for days waiting for the perfect shot, and then come home with one great image.  Maybe that works for some people, but not for me.  I like to explore my surroundings and my subject, shooting at many different angles and times of day.  While it is true that most of my images get thrown away, I don’t consider that a failure, but success because it helped me find that one great image!

Gmb Akash: Tell us something about your likings in post processing of your photograph. How you combine your creativity with technical practice?

 Cole Thompson: As I mentioned, I like to keep things simple and that includes my post-processing.  I use an absolute minimum of tools and programs, using only a copy of Photoshop and a Wacom graphics tablet.  I do not use b&w conversion programs, Photoshop plug-in’s, monitor calibrators, printer RIP’s, special inksets or anything else.  And I use Photoshop in the simplest of ways; I don’t use layers, levels or 98% of the features it has to offer.  Instead I rely on my darkroom training and do extensive dodging and burning with a Wacom graphics tablet.  My Photoshop skills are so simple and primitive that Popular Photography branded me the “Photoshop Heretic” saying that “Cole Thompson breaks every rule in the book, but he makes digital black-and-white prints that will take your breath away.”

My emphasis is not on equipment or processes, but instead on the image and my vision of it.  Equipment and processes are just the tools that help me bring the captured image into alignment with my vision.  My first priority is the creative element and I only focus on the technical when my vision exceeds my technical skills.  Fortunately technical skills are easily learned; the creative ones are much harder to master.

The Angel Gabriel

This is the Angel Gabriel.  I met him on the Newport Beach pier as he was eating French Fries out of a trash can.

He was homeless and hungry.  I asked him if he would help me with a photograph and in return, I would buy him lunch.

The pier was very crowded and I wanted to take a 30 second exposure so that everyone would disappear except Gabriel.

We tried a few shots and then Gabriel suggested that he hold his bible in the next image.  This is the image that worked and the only people you can see besides Gabriel are those “ghosts” who lingered long enough for the camera.

Gabriel and I then went into a restaurant to share a meal; he ordered steak with mushrooms and onions.  When it came, he ate it with his hands.  I discovered he was Romanian and so am I, so we talked about Romania.  He was simple, kind and a pleasure to talk with.  I asked Gabriel how I might contact him, in case I sold some of the photographs and wanted to share the money with him.  He said I should give the money to someone who could really use it; that he had everything that he needed.

Then the Angel Gabriel walked away, content and carrying his only two possessions: a Bible and a bed roll.

Gmb Akash: Do you have any photographers/ artists who inspire you consistently? Please share few of your favorite artist/photographer whose work could encourage for creating an art.

Cole Thompson: My first photographic hero was Ansel Adams and I still very much admire his work.  Another early hero was Edward Weston, initially I just loved his art but over the years I’ve come to more appreciate his attitude and philosophies.  I continuously read his “Day Books” for inspiration, especially right before I go out to create new images.

A modern influence has been the Russian photographer Alexy Titarenko, it was his series of long exposures of dreary Russian cityscapes that inspired me to pursue the long exposure.   (  It was because of his influence that I created The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau, which I consider my most important body of work.

Gmb Akash: Please mention one of your unfinished/dream works you want to proceed in future.

 Cole Thompson: I have a number of ideas, but I don’t know if I’ll ever pursue them simply because every project that I’ve done so far has come about spontaneously and was not pre-planned.  There is something about planning a series that takes the spontaneity out of it for me.  But regardless if the idea comes spontaneously or is planned, if I don’t feel a burning passion for the project, I will not pursue it.


Gmb Akash: We request you to give a message for B/W photographer to live in this passion like you & we want to receive few of your secret that you want to pass.

Cole Thompson: I always hesitate to give other people advice, because we are all different and at different stages in our creative lives.  But, here is what I believe and share with you:

1.  Ignore the rules, and better yet, never learn them!  They are restrictive and will only lead you to mediocre work that will look like the work of everyone else who follows the rules.

2.  Develop your own vision and style and resist copying others.  I don’t want to be an imitator, but a creator!  Someone just told me that when you try to copy someone else’s image, you produce a “photo-copy” instead of a photograph.

3.  Find projects that you have a burning passion for.  If you don’t feel that way about your current project, change it!

4. Define for yourself what success is and then purposely pursue it.

5.  Seek only to please yourself, because pleasing others is never success and is unfulfilling.

6.  Be a good person, this will help you be a good artist.

“Undoubtedly readers will love to hear the interview from the Master of Black & White ‘Cole Thompson’.  Thanks to him for giving us immense knowledge about his works. Please visit him at or visit his very informative blog at              Gmb Akash”


17 thoughts on “An interview with “Master of Black & white- Cole Thompson”

  1. Very inspiring!!!!!!!!!!!!
    A cameraman TAKES images……But a Photographer CREATES images
    So, I want to be a Photographer note merely a Cameraman ………….


  2. Thanks Akash vai for sharing the interview with us. I never forget the followings:

    I work alone, I cannot relax if someone is with me and I feel like I’m holding them up, even other photographers or my family!

    Define for yourself what success is and then purposely pursue it.

    Seek only to please yourself, because pleasing others is never success and is unfulfilling.

    Be a good person, this will help you be a good artist.


  3. Certainly A MASTER! Thanks Brother Akash for sharing these precious information from Master Cole Thompson. I agree with Mahbubur Rahman. & lastly please keep posting we want to know more..


  4. I am glad that this interview inspire you. Many inspirational photographers works as mentor to me,whose technical briefing facilitates me to understand photography,knowing their ethics helps to become a better photographer & human. “Master of Black & white- Cole Thompson” is one of my favorite in them. Few information,few technique can rapidly change a photographer career. So I will keep posting on “Lessons from inspirational photographers”.


  5. Reblogged this on pepperpau and commented:
    This is also a great example of storytelling. Create your own story and share it with others (sometimes a little customization would be required depending on the audience), but it will help you to clarify your ideas and make sure you have a consistent and coherent line. I invite you to create your story, just like Cole Thompson and many others do.


  6. What a wonderful interview…and inspiring thoughts. I have also always had a love affair with black and white. As Mr. Thompson said…” black and white captures the feelings that lie beneath the surface “. I believe that’s true. Thank you Akash for sharing.


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