Having a mother that took him places played a key role in James McArthur Coleman’s creative beginnings. The new places and faces he saw when traveling with his family, as a kid, fascinated him; and he found joy in documenting their vacation adventures through the lens of a camera.
When he wasn’t traveling with family, Cole nurtured his young love for charcoal drawing and oil painting. He also harbored aspirations of being an architect. Little did he know that these hobbies would ultimately prepare him for his life’s work and color the road he’d walk into his destiny.
After purchasing a “decent camera” 10 years ago, for the sake of documenting life’s memorable moments in much the same fashion he did as a youth, Cole unintentionally set out on an unknown path that would lead him beyond his own aspirations.
After seeing some of his photographs, Cole’s wife Kathy, along with friend and fellow photographer Mike Baker, recognized his talent and encouraged him to put together a small art show. The show was such a success that Cole did a few more the following year. Though it was never his plan to become a professional photographer, his work took off and he had to catch up with it. These days, he’s doing up to 24 shows a year, showing off photographs he’s taken all over the world, including places like London, England and Venice, Italy.
Cole, a thoughtful, reflective, self-taught architectural and landscape photographer, works tirelessly. He takes his work so seriously that he rises before the roosters, does extensive research on his subjects, travels all over the world, immerses himself in the respective cultures, interviews the locals and spends countless hours capturing the right shot, even if it means sitting and patiently waiting for the perfect moment to catch lightning in a bottle. Whatever it takes, Cole is committed to getting the image he came for. However, it doesn’t end there.
After he’s gotten his capture, Cole experiments with different editing practices and techniques. Sometimes it can take the meticulous and intentional lensman weeks, months or even years to figure out what he wants to do with the image, how he wants to present it and what he wants audiences to see. For him, simply creating a beautiful photograph is not what he works so hard for. Cole wants to capture the spirit of a particular site and he wants it to be felt by all who behold his art.
Capturing the emotion of a place is something Cole is extraordinarily passionate about. He uses the words “emotion” quite often in reference to his work. He speaks with it as well, even pausing before admitting he can “feel some of those emotions now,” as he reflects not only on how his photography has changed his own life but also how it’s affected others.
“I try to get into the emotional value of wherever I go. I try to bring that emotion back with me so that every time I look at it [the picture], I can reminisce and remember exactly what it is about that place that intrigued me,” he says.
Cole wants the same for those who encounter his work. “I want my audience to have an emotional attachment.”
If that connection isn’t made, he doesn’t feel he’s done his job. One of the primary indicators of this connection is audience inquiry. Cole endeavors to pique their curiosity and prompt them to ask questions about his reasons for taking a photograph a particular way or at a particular time of day.
“If I can get the audience to ask me those questions, I have them captivated with the photograph,” he says. “At that point, I know I have them connected.”
As far as Cole is concerned, a photograph without emotional value is just an image and that simply isn’t good enough for him, even if it’s visually stunning.
“The one thing I want people to do with my photography is dissect it,” he says. “Don’t just take it for what it is. Get involved. Look deeply and try to figure out all the different aspects of it.”
He continues, “When you look at it and dissect it and then when you put it together as a whole, it makes sense.”
This is something Cole himself does with a picture before the audience even lays eyes on it. In fact, it’s his personal assessment that determines if a particular image ever sees the light of day. He critically analyzes it to make sure it delivers. If it doesn’t, he doesn’t print it.
“A picture isn’t a photograph until it’s printed,” he says. “I won’t make a photograph unless I feel the audience can make some type of emotional connection with it.”
An example of this occurred when a man attended one of Cole’s art shows and was seemingly captivated by a particular photograph.
The man would leave and come back. He’d leave again and come back. He would eventually purchase the photograph. Afterwards, Cole asked him what it was about the piece (an image of a red “telephone box” in London) that spoke to him and kept him coming back to it. The man revealed that his young son had died of cancer and that one of his son’s last requests was to travel to London to stand inside of one of these historic red phone booths, which they did before his passing. The man began to cry during the telling of his story. Cole and his wife were also moved to tears.
In additional to emotional impact, Cole also wants his work to inspire people to travel. He feels its part of his job to motivate his audience to go see the locations he’s captured in person. “There’s so much beauty in the world and it’s all for us to share,” he says.
“I truly enjoy people who have never seen it [the location],” he later adds. They want to know where it is. They’re in such awe. It’s like the Great Wall of China. You see it and you want to know how in the world it ever got built or how long it took.”
Cole is aware that traveling to other countries (and for some, even to other cities within the U.S.) is not an easy option for everyone. He knows that sometimes his photographs are the only way some will ever see these attractions. This gives him even more incentive to authentically capture his subject’s true essence.
His desire to influence more people to travel goes far beyond just inspiring people with his photographs.
“My biggest dream is start a program for inner city black kids to be able to travel with me, doing photography,” he says, of his desire to expose young people to life and culture outside of their own neighborhoods. Although he’s tried in the past, funding kept him from fully realizing this dream. However, a dream deferred is still a dream. Cole plans to revisit this idea in the future.
Even with all of his success, the ever-appreciative Cole admittedly struggles with receiving praise for his work, although he’s not quite sure why. His best guess is that it’s because he’s always trying to push himself to do better.
His humility shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of confidence. Cole isn’t the most technical photographer, and although he thinks of himself as the hardest working, he doesn’t consider himself the best. However, he does think he’s the best at creating an image that touches others. “That whole emotional contact is what drives me,” he says.
Cole says he doesn’t believe in failure when it comes to his photography because it’s all a learning experience. “I’m not afraid to make a mistake and I’m not afraid to admit it.” Cole sees it all as a part of his growth and evolution as an artist. It’s all a part of the process.
“Photography has taken me on a journey that I knew it would,” he says. “It’s probably the biggest emotional rollercoaster I’ve ever been on in my life, outside the birth of my son,” he later adds.
Part of that journey includes traveling to Zimbabwe to photograph Victoria Falls, as well as visiting Beijing, China and Cape Town, South Africa in the near future. These are just a few of the locations on Cole’s ambitious bucket list.
“Photography is a marathon, not a sprint,” he later adds. “I just keep chasing that dream for that great moment. I don’t always catch it but I keep chasing it.”
Cole isn’t just chasing the dream. He’s living it; telling the world’s story, one image at a time, to all who have eyes to listen.