Video by Robert Grieb of Positive Productions
Let’s begin with a super brief background summary. Cole Barash was the main man in snowboard photography a few years back. He was at the top, above all the rest, and every brand and pro snowboarder wanted a piece. Three years ago he moved to New York, where snowboarding doesn’t exist, and since then he’s been getting his hands very dirty in all kinds of interesting photography projects. Perhaps Cole hit the top of the snowboard industry and didn’t like the air up there or give a shit about the success, so he climbed back down to the bottom and headed off in another direction, but he kinda disagrees with that theory. Either way, Cole is a hustler and grinds hard to make things happen for himself. He’s a very motivating guy to be around and makes you want to get your own ass in gear. He’s got a couple big projects hitting the public eye in the near future and everything he touches these days seems to light on fire. Here are some of his thoughts and opinions to give a summary of how and why his career has gone through transition. This is the current Cole Barash: 544 Park.
What’s a quick and vague outline of how you ended up doing what you do?
I busted ass early on in the snow, starting when I was 17. It led me to being able to execute specific concepts in snowboarding and eventually focus on only what I wanted to shoot, which then led me to taking off on my own completely. Now my life consists of making personal work, which is paid for by specific commissioned work—some that I care about and some that I could give a fuck about.
How old were you when you became the lens man at Forum Snowboards?
Eighteen. I graduated high school on June 19th and on July 19th I flew to the Forum office to negotiate my contract. My mind was blown. I was 18 and being paid to do what I loved with an endless travel budget to go out and create how I envisioned with some of my best friends, chasing snow and omelets around the planet.
How did you end up with Nike as their snowboard photographer?
I was 21 and the phone rang. “Hi. We’re starting a brand in snow under Nike SB and we want you to be a part of it.” For the next three years I was able to get a lot of budget to execute creative concepts for them. It was rad. But that was before fucking 6.0 was born and fucked it all up and made it super lame.
Was there a moment where you felt like you couldn’t go any further with snowboard photography? Like you’d already made it to the top and tapped out?
I would never say or consider myself at the top in anything. I did however feel like I hit the top creatively. For me it was simple… You spend so much time and energy to go out and capture these action shots in amazing places with amazing people. You may have such a rad idea and feel so strongly about it and then it sometimes gets delivered to magazines or companies with absolute shit art direction. Then your ideas are squashed because the delivery wasn’t what you envisioned, which is tough sometimes. I don’t know. I will forever respect the progression of snowboarding and the need to present that in a documentary way to the core community. I just realized that I wanted to focus my energy and time on things that were really fueling me. I wanted to completely mix it up and get out of the snow for a bit.
And that’s why you came to New York?
I came here to push myself. I got a chance to live here for free for six months, so I jumped on it. Three years later I’m still here. The level you’re pushed to here is like no other place because your peers are so good. People don’t just talk about shit here, they do it. The creative progression and collaboration is really amazing to see and to be a part of. That being said, I had to give up a lot to move here, which was hard, and it was lonely at first. Looking back now, it was so worth it. I can always and will eventually move back to the beach.
What are the best and worst things about New York?
The best is collaborating. There is some insane talent. This city pushes you to bring your shit to the next level. It’s inevitable if you want to survive here. The best of the best come through here or live here and having those resources at your fingertips on the daily is pretty amazing, whether it’s music, art exhibitions, or fashion. And the food… Fuck, the food is incredible here. There’s so much flavor of people and styles. It’s a blender of the world in 22 square miles. The worst thing is the trek to the ocean. I’m born and bred on the East Coast and grew up surfing the cold waters of New England, so I’m fine with throwing on a 5mm and going out when it’s blown out and waist high. But the trek to get to the beach sucks. It’s far and not easy. Also, the weather extremes… The cold harshness doesn’t really bother me, but the heat sucks. And the price of New York ain’t cheap and it isn’t getting cheaper.
Do you feel like you’ve walked away from snowboarding, or has living in New York naturally led you into other photography arenas?
Nah, I will never completely walk away from snowboarding. I’ll always have it as my roots. New York has definitely pushed me to other arenas, which is exactly why I moved here. I got burnt on living in the bubble in SoCal. I was craving more grit and grime, more art, more music, and more flavor. I wanted to be thrown into it head first and see if I could survive and where it would take me because I had no idea where I wanted to go.
Now that you’ve committed to the new world, do you think you’re jaded on commercial photography as a job in general?
I felt stagnant with what I was doing. There are guys that are so good and grind so hard, and I’ve got mad respect for that—guys who have shot snow for 20 years and every year they are producing amazing shit. I get hyped when I see it. It’s important for me, however, to keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
Have you had any blowouts not seeing eye-to-eye while shooting for big brands?
For sure. That’s how I realized it’s “working 9-to-5 style” and I’m clocked in. Most of the time if it happens, I just suck it up and think, “Fuck it. I don’t have to ever see these photos again or put my name next to them.” I can take the money and put it into personal work. People at brands have their own vision and they’ve got to deliver on it, so I get that. I can almost always work with the art director and find a middle ground so we’re both hyped.
Break down the 6 girls 6 cities project for those who don’t know.
It’s a series of photographs that juxtapose a girl to a city—a human to a place. I chose six of the most predominate and visually enticing cities in the world: New York, Paris, London, Moscow, Tokyo, and Sao Paulo. My plan was to photograph a girl in studio, on film, and then re-expose the film while walking around each of my chosen cities, creating emotional—and somewhat unplanned—double exposures. For example, I photographed a Russian girl in studio and then went to Moscow with the rolls of film and re-exposed them blindly throughout the city. I shot 60 rolls in studio and styled the girls accordingly to each city. Then I bought an around the world ticket, couch surfed in each city on a shoestring budget, and re-exposed all the film. It was a gamble and I had no idea if the film was gonna be fucked from X-ray scans at airports. That’s the shit I love, though. The anticipation of the creative process.
6 girls 6 cities was created over a year ago. Why are you still sitting on it?
I want people to see it in print form first. A few selects have ran in two magazines, but the project as a whole will not surface online until after a proper show. I’m waiting for the right opportunity to present it in an exhibition. Ideally, next winter in NYC.
Straight up, do you have better ideas than other photographers?
No. Definitely not. Art, photography and music are so subjective, so no idea is really better than another. One might be received differently than the other, but no one is better. Some of my best ideas, personally, people have hated a lot. I have respect for anyone who is out there pushing it, trying new things, and seeing their ideas come to life, no matter what it is.
What inspires you? I know that’s a super lame question, but you must have a good answer.
I believe there are two different kinds of inspiration: Sub-conscious inspiration, where your mind is living in the moment—drift mode—and subtle details strike a pause in you. It could be the slam of a fat ass on a seat, the wind in someone’s mullet, the smell of sawdust, or the color pallet at ugly noon light on a street full of cars—random shit. I try to keep my mind open and my senses in receiving mode as much as I can. If something catches me or makes me do a double take, I question it and notice it in detail. The second kind is the more traditional, focused inspiration. I try to spend a lot of time at exhibitions or films or shows because I believe when you’re fully immersed in an environment, you’re able to focus and really reflect on what’s being presented. Like, in a large white gallery space, or at a movie with big screens in a dark room, or at a show when the speakers are at nuts level.
Tell us about your solo mission to Iceland for the month of January.
In November I looked at all my work and decided it sucked. I needed to go out and create an entire new body of work, so I booked a month and bought a ticket to Iceland. I had no idea what I was gonna shoot, where I was gonna stay, or what the hell I was gonna do, but I knew with that amount of time dedicated to personal work, something good would come—especially in the 18 hours of darkness they have a day there in the winter. Sure enough, it did. Iceland is a pretty progressive culture in fashion and the arts, so I decided to shoot a series of portraits of different artists, musicians and designers in their studios. Then I heard about an island north of Iceland in the Arctic Circle with 85 people living on it. I took the ferry up there to explore and make photographs. I was going into people’s homes and shooting them in their living rooms, really trying to dig deep into the lives there. I’ve sat on the body of work for over a year now and just recently went back to Iceland to complete it.
How did the “Talk Story” project with John John Florence on the North Shore come about?
I’d been talking with Blake Kueny, the director of John John’s film, for a while about collaborating on a trip with them. I thought about the North Shore and how it has never really been photographed in a vision I had in mind. I wanted to create a body of work that was a study of the subculture of the North Shore that would be anchored around John John, digging deep into his world. I also wanted to focus on the more silent moments that are often overshadowed by the action and bright colorful progression that’s documented so well and thoroughly. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do some sort of book project with it, so it will serve as a bit of a statement of time about John at 21 and my visual interpretation of the North Shore in 2014. Ten years from now, John will probably have changed, progressed, and exceled to new levels and I hope that people will be able to pick up this tangible piece and look back. John and Blake were both down, so we pulled the trigger. I spent seven weeks on the North Shore.
You and your boys go on a lot of surf trips. Are any of those trips just for waves or do you find yourself always shooting while traveling?
I’m always making photographs. Everyday. Sometimes it’s nothing to do with surfing because surfing is my true way to check the hell out. It’s a mental space with a creative reset button. There’s something about the ocean that nothing else has. That’s why I’ll never shoot action surfing because I don’t want it to become work. The trip I did with Dion, Warren, Ozzie [Wright], and [Thom] Pringle last year in Indo was so fuckin’ rad. Everyone was on the same creative energy. On land, it was good times shared with Bintangs and talking about music, art, and photography. Then we would all jump in the water to shred. I never had to shoot action on that trip.
Can you imagine yourself doing anything else? Like, putting the camera down and moving onto something completely different?
Not really. I sometimes imagine what it would be like to go off the grid for three-to-six years and work on one body of work, then come back to the world with it.
Hopefully you’d come back with a sane mind after going rogue for that long. What’s it all about at the end of the day? Do you feel like your work is important or is it just a personal path for your own satisfaction?
I want to make art that is respected by the people I respect. But really, at the end of the day, I just want to enjoy my life and create from my gut. Everything else is variable and plays into the equation to get to that.
Solid thoughts. Thanks for that. Tell us about the upcoming shows for Talk Story.
I’m having a solo exhibition on July 24th at Picture Farm Gallery in Brooklyn. This is my first real show in New York, so I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to make it really fucking good and worth it for anyone who comes out. The photographs will not be presented in the traditional matte and frames. Each one will be custom built in one of three different mediums: resin, concrete, or glass. I’m working on securing a gallery space for a show in LA at the end of August. The book will be released at the shows. It’s a 9 X 12.5, 92-page book with a small run of 555 copies. It’s been an amazing process to make a book. At the end of the day, that’s what matters to me: the goods in print, not on a digital feed. I hope the project inspires other people to go out and get after their own large ideas and see them through.