Harbinger No. 1

Harbinger No. 1 © COLE THOMPSON

At the age of 14, Cole Thompson decided to make photography his future, long before he ever used a camera or saw an image come up in the darkroom. “I had been out hiking with a friend in Rochester, New York,” he recalls, “and we came across this old ruin of a house.” His friend pointed out that the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, George Eastman, used to own the property. “Even as a child, I knew what Kodak meant to Rochester, and it just piqued my interest.” So Thompson promptly checked out Eastman’s biography at school, and became fascinated with photography. “As crazy as it sounds, I felt destined to become a photographer.”

Thompson’s destiny unfolded over the next 10 years, as taking pictures became his passion. “I barely made it out of high school because I kept skipping classes to do photography,” he says. “It just consumed me. That’s how I got my start — back in Rochester.” He says that he’s entirely self-taught and has never attended a photo class or workshop. “I know people who believe that you have to master certain things before you can be creative, but I’ve always worked it backwards,” he comments. “I’ve had the idea, then found the skills to execute that idea. It’s always given me a target or goal to shoot for.”

Despite his enthusiasm, Thompson did not go on to become a full-time professional photographer. At 17, he considered going to college at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology), believing that this school represented the pinnacle of photographic education. But in a moment of epiphany (“If I pursue this as a living, will I still retain a passion for it, or will it become just a job?”), he decided to go in another direction. He developed a career in education and ran private vocational schools, only recently retiring to have the time to pursue his photography.

Thompson prefers black-and-white to color. “I don’t really know why,” he says. “But one theory I have is that I grew up in a black-and-white world.” Not only were television, movies and news delivered in black-and-white, but “when I was a kid, the nation was still segregated into black and white.”

When asked about his favorite photographic subjects, Thompson says that he can’t pinpoint any. “It’s not the subject matter that excites me so much, it’s the concept,” he remarks. He tends to be drawn to situations where he can use a long exposure, utilizing such diverse subjects as water, clouds or people. He used to keep a list of about 50 ideas of possible projects. “At one point, I realized that I hadn’t pursued a single one of them.” Instead, he says, all of the projects he’s done were ones that just jumped out at him and caught his attention. “They were always spontaneous, with no planning whatsoever. I used to think that vision was what inspired a great image,” he says. “Now I believe that it’s both vision and passion; something that just gets you excited and you can’t wait to work on it.”

Thompson has embarked on some beautifully executed photo graphic projects, many of which appear in the numerous portfolios on his website. He notes that some of his favorites include “Oregon Treasures,” images captured on the Oregon coast, where he returns every year. Other favorite projects include his images of icebergs in Newfoundland, the striking and mysterious “Harbinger” series of single clouds, and “The Ghosts of Auschwitz,” which features haunting, apparition-like figures that he photographed during a tour of the Auschwitz internment camps. “I’ve made many presentations to Holocaust museums, and have had the opportunity to meet some of the few remaining survivors,” he explains. He had a compelling experience when he met a woman who had been interned at Auschwitz. “You feel like you’re talking with living history,” he says. Thompson also spoke at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, on January 27, 2013, the 68th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “Some great memories have become cemented with creating these images,” he says. “The Holocaust survivors are dying, as are our World War II veterans, and in a few years there won’t be any left.”

As with most photographers today, Thompson shoots entirely digitally. “I have great memories of the film days,” he says. “I spent many hours in the darkroom, but would never go back. I love digital.” He remembers that when digital imaging first appeared on the scene, there was much discussion about how it would affect black-and-white photography. “It’s a wonderful tool for black-and-white,” he maintains. “I didn’t have any trouble transitioning at all.”

Read More in Photographer’s Forum :: Spring 2017 / Vol. 39 / No. 2