Baroque Church © Barbara Cole

Baroque Church © Barbara Cole

The Canadian artist’s latest series of images are sub-aquatic, but you wouldn’t think so to look at them. We spoke to her to find out more.

It’s been a couple of months since we shared Barbara Cole’s astonishing underwater dancing photos. So we were excited to hear she’s got a new series on the go, and it’s as incredible as ever!

combines the Canadian artist’s pioneering underwater photography with historical architecture to create timeless, ethereal scenes that exist between the real and the imagined.

Continuing her transformative explorations of the female figure and place, this new series merges the historical with the emotional, depicting dreamscapes in which women float across adorned interiors from Versailles to Munich to Turin. What’s truly attention-grabbing is that you wouldn’t actually think these images were shot underwater at first glance.

We chatted with the artist to find out what inspired this latest series and how she went about shooting it.

Hybrid imagery

To us, Somewhere feels like a step forward from her earlier work, incorporating different backgrounds. But Barbara doesn’t see it that way, see it rather as a continuation. What most inspires her is the qualities that water work provides: weightlessness and movement. “I am inspired to use these to create a hybrid sort of image that is ‘Between Worlds’, which happens to be the name of my new book,” she explains.

As for the model’s costumes, Barbara was inspired by a picture of choreography she saw on Instagram. “I fell in love with the colours of it,” she recalls. “Since I had intended to use multiple figures for the first time, it was essential that the colour palette blended beautifully.”

The costumes were designed on a Zoom call between Barbara and New York designer Robert Danes. “We discussed certain concepts, and he sketched as we spoke. We wanted an elevated elegance, and with Robert’s help, I hope we’ve achieved that.”

Hermitage © Barbara Cole

Hermitage © Barbara Cole

Germinating the idea

The artist explains that she doesn’t research her ideas formally. “Instead, I tend to live with an idea for many months. If it has potential, then that original seed of the idea begins to germinate like a flower until it has stretched and morphed into a full-fledged need to create reality.

“I have always loved historic buildings,” she adds, “because of the richness of the memories that live inside them. It’s a little bit biographical. What would my girlfriends and I do if we had a gorgeous castle to explore? It’s a living dream.”

As you might expect, the actual shoot presented several challenges. “The main one was choreographing three figures to perform at the same time underwater,” says Barbara.

“I initially wanted the models to completely submerge themselves, but the timing proved too difficult. As one model settled for the picture, another was out of breath. But everything improved with practice. It was also helpful to explain how the found backdrops would transform the scene. When I directed them to walk or run, they could easily picture the room they were in.”

Despite the practical difficulties, Barbara remains drawn to underwater work. “Once I began to shoot underwater in 2003, I thought that that series would be a one-off,” he notes. “I had trouble finishing my work and thought that shooting underwater in an outdoor pool in Toronto, which is snowy and cold for half the year, might solve that problem. But it didn’t. There was so much to explore in this medium.

Hall of Mirrors © Barbara Cole

Hall of Mirrors © Barbara Cole

Italy © Barbara Cole

Italy © Barbara Cole

St Catherine's Palace © Barbara Cole

St Catherine’s Palace © Barbara Cole

Munich © Barbara Cole

Munich © Barbara Cole

“I had been a practising studio artist for 15 years, and once I went underwater, I brought that expertise with me. There was just so much to try and explore that I haven’t finished after all this time.”

Sense of uncertainty

The results speak for themselves, and the creative fulfilment they supply keeps Barbara motivated to do more. “I enjoy shaking things up and giving the viewer an experience they might not have actually seen before,” she explains.

“It’s not immediately apparent that these pictures are underwater. And that’s the mystery and point of it all. Whether I’m in the water or the studio, I try to create timeless work that is situated in a vague environment. It adds a little uncertainty before the image comes into focus.”

Selections from Somewhere will appear in a photography book, Between Worlds, from teNeues publishing house, and in several forthcoming exhibitions, including at the new Bau-Xi Gallery in Toronto, from now until 30 September. The artist will be in attendance for the opening reception tomorrow, 7 September 2023, as well as for an artist talk, Q&A, and book signing on 30 September 2023.

The series will officially be launched in a solo exhibition at Galerie de Bellefeuille in Montreal, 5-24 October.

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