Street Photography is a challenging genre of because it requires the photographer to be spontaneous while simultaneously controlling variables like color, lighting, and overall composition. Documenting people in their everyday environment also requires patience and bravery because many people don’t want to be photographed by a stranger. For all of these reasons, well executed street photography requires exceptional talent.
Thomas Cole is a street photographer who moved to New Orleans several years ago and started documenting life as he experienced it in the city. He grew up in California, but honed his talent for observation when he started traveling throughout the world. Eventually Thomas’s passion for travel helped him make a living as an art dealer and expert in Asian textiles. Photography was a hobby of his throughout his adult life, but lately it has become his passion.
NCM: When did you first feel compelled to shoot photos?
Thomas: I traveled to Afghanistan in the early 1970s and took along a Pentax 7 to document my trip. It wasn’t a very expensive camera, but it took decent photos. It was a favorite of photo journalists because it wouldn’t really set you back financially if you accidentally lost it.
NCM: How did you develop the film?
Thomas: I would just give it to a shop out there or I brought it back to the States and had it developed. I still have some of those prints lying around at home.
NCM: What made you choose Afghanistan?
Thomas: In 1969 my brother introduced me to a friend of his at Berkeley who had just come back from Asia. I was very interested in all of his stories about the Seychelles, India, and Nepal. The art he brought back from Nepal intrigued me and I wanted to see these strange cultures for myself.
The late sixties were a very polarizing time in America and especially in California. So I decided to escape to Asia. I wanted to live a different reality. Afghanistan was especially fascinating because it seemed so medieval. All of Asia was very different at that time.
NCM: What skills did you develop in Asia that helped you become a good photographer?
Thomas: I was a practiced observer who kept my eyes and ears open and observed everything around me. I’ve translated that skill to photography.
When I started taking photos, I wasn’t serious about photography as an art form. My goal wasn’t to publish a book or anything like that. I was mainly looking to document my personal experiences. And some of the photographs I took in those early days were good shots. From my perspective as an artist today, I’m proud of those early photographs.
NCM: So what made you decide to become an art dealer?
Thomas: That career just sort of evolved for me. Between 1970 and 1990, I spent 16 out of those 20 years on the road in Asia. I came back to the States with my family in 1998 and continued to make a living with my art business, which involved periodic travel to Asia.
In 2010, I decided to return to India with a real camera and pursue photography more seriously. For the next four springs I returned to India to wander for four to six weeks at a time and take photographs. Then I would return to the States and have exhibitions of my work. I actually sold quite a number of those photographs.
NCM: When did you come to New Orleans.
Thomas: In 2015 my daughter invited me to New Orleans. She had moved here for work and wanted to be closer to me. I found that New Orleans was fertile ground for me as a photographer. New Orleans is a community that I enjoy being a part of.
NCM: Did you ever get any formal education as a photographer or are you completely self-taught?
Thomas: I have absolutely no formal education. I’m completely self-taught.
NCM: Do you think it is harder for photographers to stay relevant with digital technology?
Thomas: I have heard the debate over whether or not it’s killing photography. Digital is great if you are out in the field taking photographs because you don’t have to carry tons of rolls of film. It makes the job of a photographer so much easier in many ways.
NCM: Do you think it hurts your profession now that everyone has a digital camera built into their smartphone?
Thomas: A smartphone camera is not as good as real photographer’s camera. They are point and shoot cameras. A real photographer knows how to control everything with their camera.
NCM: Do you upgrade your camera and equipment very often?
Thomas: Not at all. I am using a Canon 6D with a Tamron 28300 lens. I like being able to strap my camera to my wrist and walk around with it. Constantly changing my lenses destroys the spontaneity of the shot. The eye of the photographer is more important than fancy equipment.
NCM: If you could shoot whatever you want and not have to worry about your bank account, what would be your dream?
Thomas: I’m doing it. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing what I’m doing right now.
NCM: Where do you think photography will be in the next 25 years? Do you think it’s a dying art?
Thomas: I don’t think that professional photography is a dying art form because there are more photographs available now than ever. What is changing is the public’s appreciation for it as an art form.
I’m lucky because I don’t have to focus on selling my photography to make a living. Photography is something that I am passionate about and my satisfaction comes from people enjoying my work.
NCM: Do you have any advice for someone who is just starting out as a photographer?
Thomas: Just keep shooting. Don’t constantly second guess yourself. Sometimes you will be surprised by what comes out of your camera.
You can see more of Thomas Cole’s photography in his book Standing in the Shadows: New Orleans in Focus.