Archives For Cotton Coulson

A tribute published by Digital Photo Pro Magazine

Cotton Coulson: Master Of The Travel Narrative

Those who knew Cotton Coulson knew him as funny, kind, outgoing and, above all, loving. Coulson was known to become so entranced by his subjects that he would often come back from a shoot, transformed. With unkempt curly locks and an ear-to-ear grin, Coulson was easy to spot, even on assignment. He was always the one with insuppressible energy and a passion to explore. He was incredibly attached to the places and the people around him. This was no more true than with his wife, Sisse Brimberg. Together, Brimberg, herself a National Geographic shooter, and Coulson were clearly two sides of the same coin.

Separately, and as a team, Coulson and Brimberg photographed more than 60 stories for National Geographic and Traveler magazines. It was National Geographic, in fact, that first brought the couple together.

“I came on a grant in January of 1976,” Sisse Brimberg recalls. “I think the second day I was there, I was introduced to Cotton. I saw him and there he was, with all his energy and his amazing looks, with the curls and everything. I think I fell in love with him right there.”

For five years, Brimberg had been working as a photographer in Denmark, and she was looking for something new and different when she came to National Geographic. Coulson, though just 24 at the time, had already established himself as an up-and-coming photographer for the publication.

“I think Cotton was around 12 when he first picked up a camera,” Brimberg says. “He became a member of the photo club in his school, and that encouraged him in that direction. He attended New York Art and Design High School, where he liked photography even more. Then he went to New York University, to NYU film school. Film had a great influence on him. He loved all the films from the 1930s, the film noir, the black-and-white. Touch of Evil was his favorite, because the start of the movie was so amazing with one long, long shot. I remember it being something like four minutes long.

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LEICAS AND SONYS
“Cotton always loved the Leica M series the best,” says Sisse Brimberg, Cotton Coulson’s wife and photographic partner, “no matter when, no matter where, no matter what. The Sonys, recently, he really took a great liking to them, but the Leicas were always the supreme love for his expression in photography.”

 

“That whole pan scene, it’s something that had never before been seen like that. An amazing thing. It was so unusual, and he loved it. And, in a certain way, Cotton was always out there, looking for the ultimate, pushing the edge, pushing to get something new. He did that with photography throughout his whole career. His style, even from the very start, is more than documentary. It’s documentary and art together.”

At 19, Coulson received a small inheritance. He used the money to fund his first photographic excursion, traveling to the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland, a region as remote as any you’re likely to find.

“He just wanted to go out there and shoot,” Brimberg says. “He’s 19 years old, he’s never traveled on his own before, and he goes and hangs out with the people from the Orkneys, and he gets into the Geographic. From there, they started to sponsor him so he doesn’t need to pay for his film. He’s 19 when he gets to the Geographic; that’s an unusual thing.”

The gregarious Coulson, by all accounts, had a knack for the unusual. Though photography remained a constant throughout his career, he ventured into other roles, including picture editing at The Baltimore Sun and U.S. News & World Report, working with Rick Smolan on his noted 24 Hours in Cyberspace project.

“He goes in to U.S. News & World Report and works there, and literally becomes the assistant director of photography there,” recalls Brimberg. “He’s there and he’s together with a lot of different photographers. He loves to pull pictures. He loves to find just the right shot, or find what has been overlooked. And he has a great eye for it. That was right around Tiananmen Square; that year was full of some very big events. He was just getting the film in and going through it like nobody’s business. He loved it. He also loved deadlines. That was something that encouraged him to work harder and so on.”

 

HYPERFOCUS
“Cotton really could hyperfocus, for better or for worse,” remarks Brimberg. “When you hyperfocus, you really forget everything else. I’d say, ‘Oh, Cotton,’ and you just couldn’t penetrate if he was so locked and loaded on what he was doing. I think that came from his upbringing. I think he had seen and experienced things that were a little different, but he used it to his advantage.”

After his stint at U.S. News & World Report, Coulson became a senior vice president at then fledgling CNET Networks, when he recognized the dawning digital age as the inevitable revolution it would become.

At one point, realizing that he and Brimberg couldn’t both be on the road full time and still raise their children, Coulson even sold insurance to photographers, so that Brimberg could continue her career. He was able to work with one of his earliest photographic mentors, an insurance agent with a love of photography. He became their highest-ranked insurance salesman almost immediately. Taking pictures, no matter how far he strayed from a life on assignment, remained the constant thread.

“It followed him through his whole life, this commitment,” Brimberg says. “He had so many careers, but he was always true to photography and always true to his vision. And it’s the love of his…I don’t know, it’s not that it was the love of his life, because he had love for me, he had love for the kids and so on, but it was definitely up there. And he was very true to it.”

“He was always leaning toward art photography,” Brimberg continues, “and I think that’s what his purpose was. He did work on a body of work that was called The Space Between. It was about how you look at an image and then you have to kind of look at it one more time in order for you to see really what it is and what was his idea of what he was photographing. It was not like reality, and it was not abstract, but it was in that realm between the two. And he loved to be in that space. And I think that was also true his whole career.”

BLACK-AND-WHITE
“He also did a lot of black-and-white,” says Brimberg, “because he felt that offered an emotional range that color didn’t. Both of them have great values, and they complement each other more than anything else.”

Coulson’s portfolio reveals a passion for nature, evident in many artful images of landscapes and wildlife. In recent years, he and Brimberg (who officially became photographic partners after 20 years of marriage, even sharing their copyright on images) were working on a meaningful personal project in the Antarctic, filming and photographing the remnants of an abandoned whaling station that represented, in a broad sense, the lasting havoc humans wreak on the natural world. As part of the effort, Coulson produced a short lyrical film titled Remains, which features haunting images of the decimated whaling station in the beautiful, desolate landscape.

Remains reflects Cotton’s creativity and thoughts well,” Brimberg says. “But he had so many different disciplines where he was fantastic.

“In a certain way, between him and me, we worked together and it was always a little bit of, not competition, but when we were downloading pictures and looking through them, it was kind of ah-ha. We were at the same spot and we stood next to each other. And we would do that very often, and most often, it was just because we had zoomed in on the same thing. But then came this little excellent twist, about how I saw this and this really interested me, and so on.”

THE SPACE BETWEEN
While on assignment, Coulson and Brimberg produced narrative photos for National Geographic and abstract art pieces for themselves. The Space Between examines the stories that they felt deserved a second look. The result is a body of images that Coulson was particularly proud of, because they conveyed the emotion and movement of a subject, without a literal interpretation. Intentionally vague, the photos were designed to elicit an emotional response in a way that he felt traditional images could not.

While there are a number of husband-and-wife photographer duos, few worked together so seamlessly as Coulson and Brimberg. The collaboration seemed to create a new photographic vision in their work, the collaboration making the resulting images more powerful.

“We benefitted from it tremendously,” Brimberg remarks. “First of all, we encouraged each other. I think both of us became better as photographers from this relationship, and encouraging both of us forward and finding new things.

“It’s not difficult when you’re two, it’s not difficult to be out there in the streets and work extra-hard and so on. It’s much more difficult when you’re alone. Also, in the whole approach to people in the street, if you’re approaching them—which you most often are not—it’s much easier as a couple because you represent no threat at all. What is this person doing taking pictures? But if you’re two and you say, oh, that’s my husband over there, or, oh, yeah, my wife is standing over there, then it kind of demystifies and makes it much simpler and gives it a whole different flow.”

Whether photographing people, wildlife, landscapes or abstractions, cold climates held a special appeal. Coulson was never quite comfortable working in warm weather. For someone so drawn to the outdoors, perhaps relaxing on a tropical island would be appealing.

“That would not be him,” Brimberg says. “He’s always enjoyed colder places much more than anything warm. He was much more…I wouldn’t say ‘bleak,’ and ‘monochromatic’ is not right either, but he was always drawn toward the colder regions. Whenever he had assignments in hot areas, he didn’t much care for it. He was a cold weather kind of guy.”

FISHERMAN, HALLSTÄTTER SEE, AUSTRIA
Coulson and Brimberg were photographing on assignment for National Geographic Traveler in 2009 when he made this image in predawn light of a fisherman on Hallstätter See, a lake in Austria. It’s an image that’s quite representative of many of Coulson’s loves, as well as his ability to blend documentary photography with fine art.

One beautiful image that combines many of Coulson’s passions—the cold, the sea, humanity, nature, art—is an image from Austria. It’s a simple portrait of a man on a fishing boat, made early one morning while the cold predawn light blankets Lake Hallstatter. Made in 2009, the image would be equally at home in the 17th-century gallery of an old master painter. It’s a remarkable, timeless image that says much about Coulson and his life’s work. It’s an image that National Geographic used in its own tribute to the photographer.

Coulson was clearly successful in defining a niche making images that were as much art as journalism. And, although he may have been most excited about pushing boundaries and embracing the avant-garde, Brimberg says for her, after a lifetime shared and a decade working side by side, it was Coulson’s ability to connect with the people in his viewfinder that was most amazing.

“I still always sway toward his people pictures,” she says. “I still always get amazed over whatever it is that he pulls out of people in that split second. And I’m not sure he really looked at it in quite the same way. He’s more in there with The Space Between than he is the people. But those pictures from the past, where you see piercing eyes or extreme emotions or some tenderness, that was really amazing. Funny enough, we’ve been talking about art and surfaces and things, but if you look at Cotton’s people shots, he’s so in touch with the people in front of him. It’s pretty amazing—their actions, their feelings. I think that he was a very fine photographer for describing people’s feelings. And he always wanted to touch something in your soul. And he said that. The picture, if it did not touch your soul, then it really was not anything worthy.”

Cotton Coulson died May 27, 2015, while on a diving expedition off the coast of northern Norway. See more of his and Sisse Brimberg’s photography at keenpress.com.

 

 

 

 

Cotton Coulson

January 16, 2016 — Leave a comment
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Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson on assignment in the Arctic

Apologies in the long gap since I last posted a story. We took an unscheduled break after the tragic loss of colleague and close friend Cotton Coulson , who helped establish this blog. It is still hard to process the loss and perhaps the best tribute to our wonderful friend and  talented photographer is to post a selection of his images. In a following post I will link to a article about Cotton, which wife Sisse Brimberg helped to write and is a great tribute to our much loved friend and colleague.  God speed Cotton…

 

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Cotton Coulson died May 27, 2015, while on a diving expedition off the coast of northern Norway. See more of his and Sisse Brimberg’s photography at keenpress.com.

 

Support your camera…

February 5, 2014 — Leave a comment

We just had the pleasure of testing out some great products from Australian tripod manufacturer Miller. Here is the story in full. See below for a link to the story on their own website….

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I started out in the film business over twenty years ago, shooting wildlife documentaries for Oxford Scientific Films (OSF). From the 1960’s on, they had been at the forefront of developing specialist equipment to shoot stories that always pushed the limits of technical and creative innovation. This gave me exposure to the best and newest technology in the film and documentary business from around the world. One of the many talented people I had the pleasure of working with during this time was Australian filmmaker and lens designer Jim Frazier, who won many awards for his innovative inventions.

After four years working as a staff cameraman at OSF, I had the opportunity to move to Australia to work on a wildlife series that would see me taking adventures to shoot stories all over the continent. I soon realized what great contributions Australia had, and continues to make, to both creative and technical developments in filmmaking. It became obvious that from the Outback cattle stations that became the base for many of our shoots, to the highest levels of high-tech industry, this was a country where geographical isolation gave birth to a culture that demanded creative engineering skills. It didn’t matter whether it was using fencing wire to mend a broken down truck in the Outback or to have the imagination required for Jim Frazier to create his pioneering lens designs, this was a culture that values innovative solutions.

After selecting the appropriate camera and lens combination (at that time the Aaton LTR Super 16 film camera / Zeiss and Nikon glass), the next crucial part of the filmmakers kit is selecting a good tripod and fluid head system. This decision combines a need for smooth camera moves, a steady platform, but not so heavy that it restricts your ability to be mobile in the field.

Back at OSF I had been using solid Germany technology, an Arriflex camera and Sachtler tripod, both at the top of their field in terms of build quality, but to my mind, not designed for use in the extreme conditions that we often encounter shooting wildlife and adventure stories. When I went freelance and headed to Australia, this led me breaking the mould and to selecting the Aaton camera system. It was designed by a cameraman with an engineering skills, as opposed to a brilliant engineer, that had never spent long hours in the field with a camera in their shoulder.  I wanted a tripod built with similar design sensibilities.

Soon after arriving in Melbourne, I was quickly exposed to one of Australia’s greatest technical contributions to the film business, Miller tripod systems. Originally built with wooden legs and uncomplicated fluid heads, these products were ideal for the independent filmmaker requiring a reliable and mobile system. Twenty years later, they have stayed ahead of the times, trading wood for carbon fibre and fluid heads capable of carrying anything from a video enabled DSLR to the heaviest of digital cinema cameras. For the last two decades, when given a choice, I have hardly used any other tripod system. This has included working on flagship TV series including BBC’s “Life”, “Life in Cold Blood” (featuring Sir David Attenborough), “Frozen Planet” and recently Emmy Award winning National Geographic series, “Untamed Americas”.

Today, I combine shooting stories for networks that include the BBC, Discovery, and National Geographic, with teaching digital storytelling workshops for the world’s premiere expedition travel company Lindblad Expeditions, and their partner National Geographic Travel. My first adventure with Lindblad was in the Arctic outpost of Svalbard, a place I had called home for two years while shooting a story on polar bears. We sailed on the ship Explorer, along with other top National Geographic contributors that were invited to share their experiences of shooting films and magazine articles from all over the globe. I was lucky enough to travel husband and wife team, Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson. They have shot over forty magazine articles during their careers. With many common interests and a shared love of wild places, Cotton and I soon decided to collaborate on future projects, culminating in Expedition Workshops. Currently based onboard the Lindblad / National Geographic fleet of ships, we offer dedicated digital storytelling classes to a small group of guests in some of the world’s most remote wildlife and cultural locations. These cover everything from video shooting techniques to editing a finished film.

For my broadcast work I still use a 100mm bowl Miller DS25 with double stage carbon fibre legs and Cotton uses a Miller 20 tripod system. But we both needed a light solution for the small camera and DSLR shooting we do for the workshops. The ideal solution was the Miller Solo DV and DS10 head. Both Cotton and I have the same camera support systems which we have tested everywhere from the Tropics to the Antarctic. In addition, for shooting human interest stories (as well as when shooting stills), we also both employ Miller carbon fibre monopods.

The DS10 heads have withstood the rigors of every environment we have thrown at them, from the muddy banks of the Amazon to the sea ice of the Antarctic’s Weddel Sea. Recently while shooting the king penguins in South Georgia, Cotton and I both spent many hours on our stomachs shooting images of the molting adults and growing chicks, as well as the many elephant seals populating the beaches. To make this possible we each used one of our favorite features with the Miller Solo DV, its ability to spread the legs out quickly so we can shoot just above ground level.

Capturing images at just 12” from the ground, it places you at the eye level of the subject enables you to better convey the environment in which they live and better enter their world. At other times you can extend the Solo DV to almost 6’, enabling you to capture high angles when that is more appropriate. It is truly a very versatile set of legs.

The tripod always holds fast in the high winds that sweep down from the glacial ice. These catabolic winds can appear in minutes, raising wind speeds from zero to gale force without warning. We also walked many miles up and down the high mountain slopes and thick tussock grass, and weighing in at less than seven pounds, the light carbon legs and compact head made our treks much more manageable.

The head is equipped with a simple but very effective counterbalance control which neutralizes the effect of the camera’s weight when it is tilted. The pan and tilt provide smooth movements and are each easily locked, plus the quick release plate allows the camera to be removed instantly from the head, as well as positioned to make ensure the whole system is balanced. The DS10 head is ideally suited to cameras weighing in at between 5 and 11lbs, with smaller or larger heads available to suite other camera systems. All simple, but very effective designs that you would expect from an Australian engineer! One of the other features that immediately sold me on Miller tripods was the placement of the levers for adjusting the height on my larger DS25 / Sprinter combination. Unlike other popular European designs, the double set of leg extensions can all be controlled from the middle of legs, making it very easy to adjust height without having to bend down…. something that save valuable seconds when capturing a scene.

The monopod has many advantages for the kind of shooting we are doing, which includes everything from old style street shooting of people, to shooting wildlife from the deck of the ship, where there is often no room for a tripod or the vibration of the engines cancels out the steadiness of the Solo / DS10 system. The quick fix to stop the vibration while shooting from the deck is to place the base of the monopod on your foot. This absorbs the motion and allows you to capture a steady shot. I also use the monopod much as you would a Steadicam system. When walking with the camera to track with moving subjects, you keep a bent arm, the monopod hangs down and acts as a counterbalance making it easier to keep a level horizon and more effectively track you subject.

Our students often arrive on the ship with more economical tripod and fluid head systems, but after demoing our Solo / DS10 units, order a Miller system as soon as the get home. After years of field testing many Miller products, I would definitely recommend them to everyone from the beginning filmmaker to seasoned cinematographers working on features or television projects.

Biographies
David Wright is an award winning director of photography and producer, with recent accolades including an Emmy for cinematography. He works on high profile television series, features and commercials, also specializing in shooting high speed / slow motion imagery. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic, the BBC, Discovery and PBS

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Cotton Coulson is an award-winning photographer who began his career shooting for National Geographic at age 21. He was the Director of Photography at “The Baltimore Sun” and Associate Director of Photography at “U.S. News & World Report.” Cotton was Senior Vice-President at CNET Networks where he managed the Creative Design and Product Development teams. Cotton is also a Contributing Photographer for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Today his photographic and video work is focused on contemporary environmental issues.

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View the story as posted on the Miller website

During the summer of 2013 we sailed from Trinidad to Buenos Aires on board the National Geographic Explorer. Named the “Epic South America” voyage, we explored seven different countries and traveled more than 6500 miles. Along the way we taught a digital story telling workshop….

Lindblad just posted a short video about the program. Stay tuned for 2014 date and locations

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David shooting lynx tracks for the BBC series “Secrets of Our Living Planet” using his homemade camera dolly and ladder for track

There are a lot of camera sliders and dollies on the market but we were happy to try out a new offering from  www.trostmotion.com

Before our Trost review, I must say I was a little skeptical when I first saw the units. I have been using a small camera dolly running on a ladder or plastic pipes (2″ white poly pipe) and have enjoyed the flexibility and ease of setting such a system in unusual places. It also lends itself to long runs (6′-16′)

The smaller size of the two Trost units seemed less useful at either one metre or 1/2 metre lenghts. Then I got to try them out in the field and my opinion changed dramatically.

Rather than retasking skate board wheels like many sliders / dollies manufacturers, Trost have decided to go with a soild rail that can either mounted on a hihat, straight onto a tripod head, or even vertically.

The rails are on the heavy side, but this is required in order to make them sturdy enough and also means camera moves are smooth and positive. The cart that travels down the rail wraps around the unit, meaning that you can tilt and pan the fluid head as usual and don’t get any unwanted motion in the slider, other that the required left/right motion used to create great reveal shots. Systems that rely on a cart running on rails, and based on a wheel system, mostly have to be kept level.

David shooting in Wales Alaska

David shooting in Wales Alaska

We have tested the units in far north Alaska in the early spring when temperatures only reach minus 20 degrees C, as well as in the tropics of Brazil while shooting a recent music video with recording artist Luisa Maita, represented by Cumbancha Music.

David and Cotton working with recording artist Luisa Maita

David and Cotton working with recording artist Luisa Maita

We both love the versatility of having a short slider directly mounted on the fluid head. Not only can you do great reveal shots by combining a pan with a slider move to come out from behind an object to reveal a subject, but if an actor / performer does not quite hit their mark, you can subtly slide the camera to make sure framing works well. Then being able to add a tilt without fear of any unwanted movement or the system falling off the rails, is the a great way to keep the camera moving. The rig can then be picked up and thrown over the shoulder, in order to move to the next location.

Cotton and David working at Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

Cotton and David working at Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

There are still times when I will definitely use the long rail system I have but the new Trost sliders are a very welcome addition the travel kit. We have already strapped one to my backpack and dragged it on a 6400 mile journey through South America and are departing today with it for the Antarctic. We both agree that we are VERY impressed with the build quality and reliability, ease of transport and we are still discovering exciting new ways to use a slider that can be combined with a fluid head to create three axis of camera movement. We would recommend it to anyone in the business or anyone just shooting for fun.

Can’t wait to see what other new products Trost come up with in the future!

Now off to the airport, first stop the Falklands, then South Georgia and the Antarctic on board the NG / Lindblad Explorer to teach another digital storytelling workshop.

Here is a better view of the 100cm version for our Trost review.

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Technical specs for the sliders

1 rail (100cm)
1 carriage with folding 3/8″ stud
Adjustable drag speed control
2 rotating baseplates
3 quick release collars
total dimensions     40.3 x 3 x 1″
024 x 76 x 25 mm
max carriage travel     31″
79cm
weight    15 lbs     6.8kg
temperature of operation    -31°F-212°F     -35°C-100C°
head compatibility     carries any tripod head with female 3/8″ hole or another Trost slider with Trost quick release collar
support compatibility     mounts on top of any 3/8″ or 1/4″ male screw or C-Stand end, or on tabletop.

Emmy News Celebration

October 2, 2013 — Leave a comment

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We are on board the National Geographic Explorer, part way through Lindblad’s Epic South America Expedition. Today she is exploring the delta of the great Amazon River and there is no better place to celebrate last night’s win of an Emmy for Expedition Workshops’ David Wright. He is currently leading a digital story telling workshop on board the ship with fellow National Geographic contributor, and Expedition Workshop partner, Cotton Coulson.

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David received the award for his work as a cinematographer on the National Geographic series “Untamed Americas” which is being featured as part of the entertainment on board the Explorer during the voyage. It is a four part natural history series celebrating the wildlife of both North and South America.

David previously received an Emmy for his polar bear film, “Realm of the Great White Bear” which has also been featured while he has been on board for a number of Lindblad’s Arctic expeditions. Other accolades include a Jules Verne award for his work in the Arctic and a BAFTA for his contribution to the David Attenborough series “Life In Cold Blood”.

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Teaching on board the Explorer during the Epic South America voyage (Photo by Sisse Brimberg, ExpeditionWorkshops)

David and Cotton will be sailing on the upcoming Lindblad South Georgia trip next month and offering again their exclusive “Expedition Filmmaking Workshop” to a limited number of guests. Sign up soon for this unique opportunity to go “On Assignment” with two of National Geographic’s best photographer / filmmakers to one of the world’s most spectacular wildlife destinations.

For further information about the workshop please contact Lindblad Expeditions, as only a limited number of places are still available.

News about the upcoming workshops on the National Geographic Explorer