Archives For Keenpress

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.

Enter a caption

“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.”


“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.”

“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.”

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.”

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





Cotton Coulson

January 16, 2016 — Leave a comment

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…










Leica Mon M9_120412_0416


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


Epic South America

February 23, 2013 — Leave a comment

Places are getting booked up on our Epic South America trip. It should be an incredible adventure and offers every kind of opportunity to shoot your own expedition video. To get a jump start on all the gear you will need and techniques to help to capture the trip, take a look at our online tutorials

Celebrating 125 Years of National Geographic: Epic South America

38 Days

Explore the cultures, wild places, and grand cities of eight distinctive countries, including six UNESCO World Heritage sites, and three legendary rivers—the Amazon, Orinoco, and Essequibo. Travel with a top expedition team, National Geographic and guest experts, and now, featuring complimentary round-trip air from Miami

Cotton’s latest update from his Antarctic adventure

“I must admit that for the longest time I have thought of myself as a visual purist. I love black & white photography for its direct way of communicating the essence of what you see, without the distractions of color. I have always invested  in the best quality lenses knowing that this will yield the closest proximity to what I am seeing. I completely shy away from re-touching my photographs in Photoshop, preferring instead to use the easy to use processing tools available in Apple’s Aperture. A couple of clicks and I am done, shoot to fill the frame, stay away from cropping – think and shoot like a real photographer, concentrate  on capturing the mood and decisive moment.

There is however, another side to my creative journey. I love the mysterious and unknown. Exploring visual avenues that are complete opposite of classic narrative photography and film-making. I love trying to find ways of introducing depth back into the images. Often I imagine how photos  might look taken with the stereo cameras, where you can almost place your hand into the scene and touch the objects that give an almost 3D illusion. I recall all my visits as a youngster growing up in New York and visiting the National History Museum. I spent hours in front of the dioramas getting familiar with different natural history motifs.

For the past 10 days, down here in Antarctica I have had the chance to photograph and film with the Lensbaby Composer Pro. This lens takes no time getting familiar with, the optical and build quality is just great. Full aperture control and focus control make shooting with this lens a lot of fun. I was so happy to have an Alfa Mount version that I could shoot with, both on the Sony A99, and also on the Sony NEX VG-20. As you begin your Lensbaby journey, be sure to start out shooting with the lens straight ahead to bring the center of the image in focus. After you become familiar with the technique, you can start re-positioning the Sweet Spot in the direction you want the sharp focus to move. Just like any other lens, your aperture settings make a big difference as to how much of the frame is sharp. There were even some late sunset scenes where I pointed the video camera directly into the sun, and had no evidence of flare.

Another tip is to be sure to tighten the Locking Ring so your focus area does not move. I wanted to share a few of my favorite screen grabs and stills just to show you how much fun a lens like this can be while on a traveling expedition.

This lens is has now become a permanent part of my creative kit.”


  • Available in mounts for these SLR cameras: Canon EF (EOS), Nikon F, Sony Alpha A / Minolta Maxxum, Pentax K / Samsung GX, Olympus E1 cameras.
  • Available in mounts for these Mirrorless cameras: Samsung NX, Panasonic Lumix™ G Micro System, Olympus PEN®, and Sony® α NEX digital cameras.
  • Refined metal ball design delivers ultra-smooth focus and tilt control
  • Ships with either the Sweet 35 Optic or Double Glass Optic installed
  • Compatible with the Lensbaby Optic Swap System
  • Focus Type: Manual
  • Size/Weight: 2.25” (5.71cm) high x 2.5” (6.35cm) wide / 4 oz (113.4g)
  • Tilts from zero to 17.5 degrees

You can also check this very helpful instructional video from Lensbaby

It’s an auspicious day as the National Geographic Explorer crosses the Antarctic Circle on its trip south and the National Geographic Society celebrates 125years since its creation. What better way to mark the anniversary of such a great organization.

Last night’s update from the ship via the satellite link as Cotton shoots with the help of the SmallHD DP4 viewfinder

“We are sailing through the Lemaire Channel heading for Booth Island. So happy to be on top deck shooting with my Sony A99, 16-35mm Carl Zeiss lens, with my SmallHD DP4 veiwfinder- super bright clarity, makes manual focusing a breeze. The best part of the morning was cruising through “iceberg graveyard” since once the bergs float into this area, they can no longer leave. Nice soft overcast light, really pulling out the bright blue colors. Now heading for the Ukrainian Vernadsky Station famous for collecting meteoric and ionospheric data used in ozone research.”

Photo Credit: Sisse Brimberg

For more information about SmallHD’s great product line, go to their website….

They have an exciting new range of monitors that truly allow you to see exactly what your camera is shooting as you work including the AC7

A special thanks also goes to Helly Hansen for helping the team keep warm and dry in even the most challenging of conditions!

In the summer of 2012 we ran an expedition video workshop on board the National Geographic Explorer and made landfall in Lerwick, the main port in Scotland’s beautiful Shetland Islands. Today Cotton made it to South Shetland, literally the other end of the globe.

Cotton’s post

“On our first landing on Half-Moon Island of the South Shetland Islands, I chose to bring along the Genustech Variable ND filter to use with my Carl Zeiss 16-35mm to take stills with my Sony A99. It turns out to be a very nice package, allowing me to maintain shallow depth of field and still retain full aperture control. The black and white conversion was made using Nik Software’s plug-in for Apple Aperture called Silver Efex Pro using High-Structure. The motif was a chinstrap rookery on a very beautiful rock formation. Lucky for me, Sisse was there to take a nice shot of me working.”


Photo credit: Sisse Brimberg (on of me at the rookery) and Doug
Gualtieri for the close-up of me shooting with the Variable ND.

Epic South America

December 6, 2012 — Leave a comment

The brochure is out for the “Epic South America” trip we will be making on board the National Geographic Explorer in September 2013. We will be teaching a series of expedition video workshops in an amazing selection of locations from Trinidad, all the way to Buenos Aires. Places sell fast, so check out the details at the Nat Geo/Lindblad website


Best viewed in Safari or Chrome