Alyssa Kilzer speaks with Cole Rise, a photographer whose work achieves both surreal and cinematic qualities. They discuss his technique and process, travel, and his inspirations—including the challenging and maybe impossible question of why and how we are here and the size and existence of the universe.
Cole Rise’s photographs are both comfortingly familiar and hauntingly distant. He sets up emotional and mysterious scenes while focusing on the details and the larger forms in nature. As a result our world is portrayed as beautiful and strange. The permanent and ethereal beauty of nature is in the transformative sky, with its glaring sun, soft fog, bright constellations, or heavy clouds, in the volumes of the earth, the water and rocks, and, occasionally, in the frozen motion of an air born figure within these dream-like settings.
I first began communicating with Cole last winter, when I purchased a few prints from him for Christmas gifts. He agreed to answer a few of my questions about his inspiration, his travel, and his process.
Alyssa Kilzer When did you first become interested in photography?
Cole Rise The “affair” started when I was really young, actually, with the family camera. We had an old Canon SLR with a rather long zoom lens that my parents kept in a wicker picnic basket in their closet. Everything about it held my attention, from the feel of the focus ring, to the little red numbers that came up when you half-pressed the button, to the tiny knobs and film cranks, and the sound it made when you took a picture. It was my cardboard spaceship, so to speak. I’d sit and play with it for hours, even if it didn’t have any film.
I remember it was really pleasant to look through—I liked how the lens blurred and simplified things. When I put my eye to the eyepiece, the whole world was suddenly gone, and all that mattered were the tiny details in frame: the texture of the fabric on our living-room couch, the little spikes on a blade of grass, or the way the sunlight flared when I focused through the trees.
As I got older, that grew into a hobby. I’d wander either around the house or around town with my digital camera, committing arbitrary little bits of life to a 32MB card. It was my version of a journal. I’m basically still doing the same thing, though these days I’m able to wander a bit farther.
AK In some of your photographs your subjects appear to be floating. In others, you achieve such sharp textures, and we also see dramatic effects of light, shadow, clouds, and even stars. Could you explain what processes you use to achieve this?
CR It all starts with what you can capture in-camera. As much as I embrace post-processing, you can achieve a lot of those qualities with a few techniques and quick decision making while you’re shooting. Each photo is the culmination of thousands of little choices, from what aperture setting to use with the given light, to how dirty to keep the UV filter for more interesting flares, to how you should frame the subject matter and when you should release the shutter. The floating bit takes a whole lot of jumping and a few well-timed exposures to make it feel natural. When it comes to achieving a certain lighting quality, sharpness, or lack thereof, again, a lot of that is determined before you take the photo. Lately I’ve been experimenting with shooting through a detached lens, holding it to the camera body, and varying the angles to introduce distortions and light leaks.
In post-processing, the focus is bringing out the tones, textures, and lighting adjustments that finish off a piece. It’s my week-long phase of scrutiny. There’s lots of tweaking colors, curve profiles, exposures and cleaning up any distractions like stray bits of trash I missed while on location. (It’s unfortunate how much we humans like to litter.) To add texture, I’ll take a separate photo of, say, the patina on an old plaster wall, and overlay it, just as you would create a double exposure in the traditional darkroom.
Out of all these techniques, I’d say the most important is subtlety and probably the hardest to get right.
AK When or how did you learn these processes?
CR A whole lot of experimentation. Years of it, combined with some happy accidents, and what I could learn from other photographer friends. I focused on film and cinematography through college, which taught me the some of the basics, but that aside, if you spend enough time within a field, you’re guaranteed to pick up on a few tricks of the trade.
AK Does it require very much travel to find such beautiful and (seemingly) rural landscapes? Do you often have to wait for the weather effects that you want to capture?
CR Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, landscape photography seems to be 98% traveling and 2% photographing. Last year alone I drove about 9,000 miles with my camera. In that same year I released four images, so you could say it took about 2,250 miles to take each photo. Luckily, there’s a lot of geographic diversity in the western United States so I don’t always have to go so far to find someplace beautiful. California alone has the Sierra mountains running down its eastern border, the Pacific ocean running down its west, and everything from lush farmland to the driest desert in between, all within a day’s drive of my home in San Francisco.
When it comes to weather, it’s more strategy than a waiting game. It’s good to learn a lot about weather patterns if landscape photography is your thing—it’s especially handy when scheduling shoots. The fog in San Francisco, for example, likes to hang out at around 800 feet, and clears up pretty reliably around 11:00 AM. If a shoot calls for fog, I’ll plan to head up a nearby mountain in the early morning. A good storm, if you’re lucky, gives you about an hour of shooting before moving on or letting up. Clouds are probably the least predictable of the bunch, requiring the most finger-crossing, so to speak. The opportunity could be gone in as much time as it takes to swap a lens, so any luck that I’ve had was just that—dumb luck.
AK Your photographs represent weather, light, and frozen motion in such vibrant detail and color. I would describe this combination as “surreal.” Is dream imagery or achieving a dream quality something that you keep in mind at all during the creative process?
CR Oh sure, dreams are a big source of inspiration. If you’ve ever dreamt you could fly, or were oddly aware that you were in fact asleep and could control aspects of your dream, you were probably having what’s called a “lucid” dream. It’s a very real phenomenon that speaks to a heightened state of awareness we’re sometimes able to achieve when we’re unconscious. Hugely fascinating, so I like to lean on that concept.
I also developed a “make it cinematic” habit in film school, which is probably where a lot of the look comes from.
AK Your photographs are very attuned to the patterns of nature—whether it be the flight path of birds or the patterns in a field or night sky. Are there any influences or experiences in your life that inspired this interest?
CR Well, for me it’s about perspective, and I mean that in a couple of ways. Sure, nature can be vast and beautiful, but it also has a lengthy and evolving history, of which we’re only a ridiculously small part of. From the perspective of a 76 million-year-old mountain range like The Rockies, we’re a bunch of fast-moving, minuscule blips, but to us they seem huge, static and unchanging. It’s kinda cool to consider—makes you feel small and temporary.
It’s also where we come from. I love that fact that we’re all made of the same stuff. The iron you find in the ground is the same iron you find in our blood, which was literally made by the fusing of atoms in the center of stars.
Visually, natural landscapes also give you a simple palate of colors and shapes to work with. You have these really great sky colors, ground colors, with all the little variations in between that depend on the geography, the time of day or the weather, and a horizon line that nicely contrasts the shape of someone who might be standing (or floating) in frame.
AK Do you have favorite locations that you continue to return to?
CR There is this one area on the top of Mount Tamalpais, a mountain about 30 minutes north of San Francisco, where the coastal fog meets steep and windy hills covered in wheat grass. Truly amazing hiking experience, stepping cautiously along with your camera in hand, not able to see 20 feet ahead or behind you. If that wasn’t enough, near the top of one of those hills is this outcrop of blue-green rock that looks like the lunar surface. It’s one of those awe-inspiring places that slap a satisfying smile on your face when you’re there and a place I can’t help but return to at least once a month.
AK What else inspires you when you’re working?
CR The question of how we got here, or rather “why” we’re here is what really gets me going. I don’t think we’re close to knowing the real “why,” or if we’ll ever get there, but I enjoy exploring that possibility. What would it feel like to suddenly understand the ultimate truth?
Maybe it’ll feel extremely humbling and breathtaking and a little sad because there’s nothing more to answer. Maybe there is no answer, and everything “just is.” It’s certainly an interesting thing to consider, and a big reason behind a lot of what I shoot.
Space is also a big source of inspiration. If some people have their heads in the clouds, you could say my head’s in orbit. I can’t stress enough how small we really are, and I try to remind people of that fact often. We’re really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really small. Though, amazingly, our clouds on earth look a hell-of-a-lot like light-year scale dust clouds in space. Somehow, I got to mashing long exposure photos of stars and landscapes from that.
Alyssa Kilzer is a writer and art history student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She is currently experiencing the many facets of New York City, writing short fiction, and working at BOMB Magazine.