WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW HIM
Cole Wilson is an editorial and commercial photographer who primarily focuses on portraits, food and sports. Chosen for our sister publication’s PDN’s 30 last year, he is especially adept at interesting lighting approaches via both sunlight and flash.
Almost every time he opens up his photos in Lightroom, Cole Wilson has an internal battle with consistency. Sitting at his editing station in the back of a sprawling studio that he shares with five other creatives, in a big factory building nestled in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Wilson pulls up photos he took while on vacation in Jamaica the week before, and it happens again. “OK, don’t get too crazy,” he tells himself. “They all need to live in the same world.”
It’s a dilemma that’s hard to believe when considering the variety of work he has shot within the last year alone, from fast-paced portraits of chef Daniel Boulud sporting watches for The Financial Times, to mid-feast frames taken at Brooklyn restaurants Claro and Nargis Bar & Grill for The New Yorker’s food section, Tables for Two. You’d be hard-pressed to definitively say that one photo was shot with flash and the other purely with natural light.
In that vein, “it’s all about manipulating the situation and not having that pressure of shooting someone in a beautiful way,” Wilson affirms. He decided to relieve himself of that pressure early in his three-year career as a full-time editorial and commercial photographer. “I’ve also opened myself up by shooting with a camera with great highlight recovery,” the Pentax 645Z. He underexposes his frames to avoid blowing out, doesn’t meter and avoids wide-angle lenses, too. “That’s how I embraced tight detail shots. I like more compression. It’s a little bit of stubbornness.”
Figuring out his style has been preceded with lots of experimentation. You probably won’t see him shooting his super-close-ups of faces with harsh flash anymore, though that was his thing at one point. “I feel like even the work I submitted for PDN’s 30,” which he was selected for last year, “is much different from what I’m shooting now. My work is a little softer, more uniformly warm. I started to feel a little worried that I didn’t have a through line.”
LAYING DOWN ROOTS
Tracing that line would lead all the way back to Fullerton Union High School in Orange County, California, where, as a teenager bored with jazz band, Wilson joined his school’s photo class. From there it was Pacific Northwest College of Art, which he eventually swapped for Portland State University, and then dropped out. One day he found himself in Salt Lake City, Utah, for a friend’s wedding. He met another guest named Michael Friberg, a photographer, who offered him a job assisting in Salt Lake City, and Wilson accepted. That same year, in 2013, Friberg was selected for PDN’s 30.
Gleaning from his style, Wilson learned about artificial light and applying it minimally. “We were using mixed light or using strobes outdoors where we’d have to do stuff quickly, run and gun,” he explains. “One time I had to snowboard with a strobe on a monopod behind him while he was shooting.” Sometimes, Friberg would be too busy for shoots and handed some to Wilson.
But after getting married, Wilson thought about forging his own way. Work that came through Utah almost always went to Friberg, so he and his new wife decided to move. In June 2015, he says, “we packed our stuff into our Subaru Forester and drove across the country.” To New York City.
It helped that Friberg emailed his rolodex to let editors know that Wilson was in town and looking for work. Wilson sat down with Clinton Cargill when he was a photo editor at The New York Times Magazine (he’s now the visuals director at Vanity Fair). He didn’t get hired, “but it was super important to me at the time to feel that somebody cared,” he notes. Wilson also met with editors at Bloomberg Businesweek: Meagan Wood (now the visuals editor at Compass) and Emily Keegin (now director of photography at The FADER and No Man’s Land). Those assignments wouldn’t come until later, but the encouragement he got from them in the meantime gave him the confidence to connect with a photo editor at The New York Times, Ariana McLaughlin (she’s now a freelance photographer), and it worked. “She would just hire me nonstop, having me shooting two or three times a week,” he says, “mostly local stuff in the business section—‘white guy in a suit’ kind of thing—and I would have to figure out how to make it interesting.”
The Times was paying him $200 per shoot. Needing every one of those dollars, Wilson went without an assistant and headed to his shoots by subway. He hauled all of his gear himself, including a seamless at times, so he committed himself to one light, a practice that went on to inform his stripped-down style. With his Paul C. Buff Einstein 640, “sometimes I would use just a bare reflector, either high up or far off,” he explains. “On occasion, I would shoot with two lights, either a bare reflector or a bare bulb bounced into the ceiling.” With uninspiring locations being a common theme, Wilson came to “blasting it all with light and making the fill almost as harsh as the key,” he notes. “You could also go in the opposite direction and go with a really dim, bounced light in the corner.”
Wilson doesn’t have to take the subway to shoots anymore, and he has an assistant help him with his grip bag and lights while he’s toting his camera and lens kit. But he still keeps his footprint small. It suits him.
GETTING HIS SPACE
2016 marked a few firsts for Wilson: He stopped intermittently assisting other New York-based photographers, and he signed onto a new studio space. His computer sits within a den of monitors where a few fellow studio-mates are plugged in editing. Mugs are stacked next to a coffeemaker. An alcove of chairs and couches are arranged around a dartboard with an ongoing scoreboard. A strange but intriguing silver orb, about the size of a basketball, is perched ominously on a stand. A row of seamless and bundles of photo gear are parked against a wall, with some empty space and brick for shooting. Fresh sunlight streams through enormous industrial windows and underneath them runs a long, narrow table holding small potted plants. Stools line the table, where we are sitting and eating lunch.
“I thought it’d be a big ask to make an extra $400 a month to pay for the studio,” Wilson says between bites, looking around, “but then I thought if I was going to be around these guys all the time, they’re probably going to have shoots that I can help with, so just by being here, I’ll get more work.” He was right. They share gear and shoots (and, therefore, industry contacts), and as fellow photographer Erik Tanner says, they’re “like family.” Wilson turns to Tanner, who’s holding a bouquet of white flowers, and jokingly asks if they’re for him. Then he apologizes on behalf of an intern for breaking Tanner’s reflector. Throughout the afternoon, Wilson periodically asks photographer Landon Speers for confirmation on facts. Is Clinton Cargill at Vanity Fair now? Yes. Would he say Wilson shoots in the studio the least out of anybody? Yeah, probably. “I don’t prefer shooting on location,” Wilson clarifies, “but I do get assigned it a lot. I like the idea of having to work with elements that are in front of you. I rarely have a budget for a prop stylist so if we’re in a studio, it’s like, here’s a chair, here’s seamless—versus finding interesting things about a space.”
That’s what happened when he was tasked with photographing Ta-Nehisi Coates in the author’s apartment for the Times. It turns out Coates was in the middle of moving, so furniture was sparse and bookshelves were empty—an interesting backdrop for a writer, Wilson thought. He sat him in front of the shelves and took portraits, shortly before Coates—who, amid writing the blockbuster Black Panther series for Marvel, had just had twins—fell asleep. “His publicist woke him up and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, dude,’” Wilson recalls, “and he’s like, ‘It’s cool, man, I’m just beat.’ ” The photos, he says, pointing to them on his Instagram grid, were shot with only natural light. They are some of his favorites to date.
But scrolling further in his feed, Wilson spots a portrait he took earlier that year, of comedian Tim Minchin. “Now I’m looking at it and I don’t really think I like it,” he says. Brighter and crisper than his recent work, “it just feels kind of crunchy and weird, and it’s not very interesting. Same with that,” he adds, pointing to another shot from the same series. “Like, why would I post two? I don’t know, it just seems dumb. A lot of it is based in insecurity, like, I’m not shooting or posting enough.”
Wilson plays the Instagram game—he has been hired through it—but he recognizes its downfalls. “We are all creatures that want approval from our peers. I’m going to get stoked if some art director at Nike likes my photo. But it’s really tainted because it’s so much more about others than myself.” Moving away from its roots as a platform of self-expression, Instagram, all the same, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. Wilson tries to eye different advancements in tech, finding it delusional to bank on being a full-time photographer forever.
“There are definitely more altruistic approaches to art and making something,” he surmises. “I might have to spend money on doing a weird VR project, not just to feel relevant but to be aware of the different things people are using. VR right now might not seem like it possesses the same level of nuance that a photo can have, but it might one day, so why not make yourself familiar with it now?” When he’s shooting today, that’s always on his mind: What’s new? What’s different?