The art of the visual story : Photojournalist, documentary and street photographer Bob Cooley shares his thoughts.
“Storytelling,” he said thoughtfully to my question about what he is trying to achieve with his photography. “I love to tell stories in a range of mediums, but especially visually.”
He sounds a little like Ridley Scott…
But it’s New York-based photojournalist, documentary and street photographer Bob Cooley.
Copyright ⓒ Bob Cooley
A group of people rush home on a rain-soaked evening in New York. A young man with an umbrella holds on to his girlfriend beneath it – but is she a bio-engineered replicant?
The woman is carrying a Lacoste shopping bag as they cross the street. Several figures cross behind and either side of the couple. They too are hurrying in an effort to escape the downpour, the neon signage in the darkness glowing blue, red and yellow on the sidewalk.
We can see and feel the rain and hear the whoosh of cars, the blast of horns echoing in the streets – it is like a still from Bladerunner…
Bob Cooley calls it NYC Glow…
“I was coming back from meeting friends for dinner, and it just started pouring rain,” Bob recalled. “I didn’t have an umbrella, and I was rushing to get to the subway a few blocks away. Then I turned to my left as I crossed 42nd street, and saw how the density of the rain… just made everything light up. So, I stood on the corner and waited for groups of people to cross the street. I had to wait about four cycles of the street lights, but I finally got the group of people that worked compositionally. I got absolutely soaked, but it was worth it.”
Suffering for his photography? Maybe. Certainly, getting drenched for his art, but he is definitely telling a story. Who are these people, where are they headed – maybe to the subway like Bob? Why are they in such a headlong rush to get where they want to be (aside from the weather)?
Brought up in the Midwest, small town New Buffalo to be exact (population 1883) on the Michigan/ Indiana border and about an hour from Chicago, Cooley is self-taught. A camera given to him when he was 17 sparked an interest which would soon develop (pardon the pun) into lifelong career.
“Just took a ton of photos that summer for myself,” he remembered “Sunsets in my hometown, nature, people, architecture, everything I could see. Also, that summer, I took a trip to New Orleans, and shot street musicians, performance artists, tourists – all the cliché stuff.”
“A friend took me into his darkroom once with one of my negatives to make an 8 by10 print for me. The first time I saw one of my images develop in the tray, I went from ‘interested’ to completely in love with photography. Watching my image appear before my eyes was like a kind of magic.”
Copyright ⓒ Bob Cooley
Bob was also interested when his local newspaper, The New Buffalo Times, was bought over and advertised for another photographer.
“So I thought : ‘What’s the worst they can say?’,” he shrugged. “I showed him a pile of photos that I’d taken in New Orleans and around my hometown, and he asked me if I’d : ‘Ever been in a darkroom?’ – I told him I had – which wasn’t a complete lie, because I’d been IN a darkroom, I just didn’t know how to do anything in one.”
It started Bob on his career as a photojournalist.
Initially he had majored in music at a local college while working as a photographer for a number of local newspapers and magazines, but decided to change to photography and went off to study at Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Michigan.
While still a student, Bob continued to work as a contract photojournalist for local and regional publications and Associated Press.
Today he has an impressive portfolio which includes work for a varied range of magazines and newspapers including the iconic Life (why is that wonderful publication still not with us?), Sports Illustrated, Forbes, The Economist and so on.
Copyright ⓒ Bob Cooley
“Because I’ve spent most of my career as a photojournalist,” Bob starts up. “I feel like there has always been an element of it (street photography) there. But I started dabbling a bit more specifically in what people call street photography in 2014.
“At first, it was just the occasional random photo from when I was wandering around the different neighborhoods of NYC, but then in 2015, my friend and neighbor, Sanford Frasier – a great poet for whom I’ve shot the covers of a handful of his books – and I wanted to collaborate on a project together. He selected 40 of his poems, and I was going to shoot 40 photographs that would accompany his work.”
It was this collaboration that would really bring Bob to street photography.
“My first attempts at creating photos that went along with his work were just too on-the-nose,” Bob told me. “It wasn’t working for me. I tried a couple of other methods of illustrating his work, but nothing was clicking. Then one day I was reading one of his poems and it reminded me tonally of one of my street photos – and that was the key. So, I just started shooting street photos every day after my corporate work and on weekends.”
Copyright ⓒ Bob Cooley
Once again it is raining heavily, we can see water spear toward the ground in the background where a waterlogged cyclist battles the elements. Beneath her umbrella a pretty, young girl makes an enigmatic turn toward the the photographer though she avoids looking directly at the lens. It could be a fashion shoot, and Bob is so close you can almost smell the lingering fragrance of her perfume.
“That one was on my way home from the office one evening,” the New York-based street photographer explains. “I love the way that light captures and interacts with other elements, whether that is rain, smoke, steam, and I’m always on the lookout for those interactions. It was another rainy night (I love shooting in inclement weather), and it was one of those times where I saw the rain being brought out from the illumination of the sidelights and street lamps behind, and I just waited until subjects came into view. I took a couple of quick frames of her, and everything just worked.”
It is a great shot, and one of my own personal favourites, the way the girl has looked around but apparently doesn’t see the photographer. She is aloof, but you get the feeling she sort of knows exactly what is happening – it’s a great shot and once again gets us thinking…who? Why? What? Is she waiting on her date? Is s/he late? Will s/he turn up? Is she simply waiting on a bus or a cab, an Uber…
“When I’m on the hunt for photos,” Bob explains his own personal methodology. “I try to incorporate three things into each photo: Finding an interaction or story, composition, and good light. If I’m able to get two of the three in a photo, then I feel the image is somewhat successful, but when you get all three, it’s a great street image.
“When creating street images, I try to think of catching people in the ‘middle’ of a story – my favorite images are when the viewer gets to see the moment captured, and then can add their own story to what happened shortly before that moment, or what will happen shortly after.”
I like Cooley’s work; I have followed him for a long time and only recently did we finally have the chance to come together and talk about his work. It is such a privilege.
He is thoughtful, acutely aware of who he is and what he is trying to achieve.
Copyright ⓒ Bob Cooley
“In NYC, restaurants keep outdoor seating going as long as possible – even when it gets cold out,” he explains this great shot of an, apparently, ravenous man aggressively attacking his food. “This was in December, when it’s pretty cold here (average 0 to 4.4C). Many people hit the pizza places in my neighborhood after drinking to soak up the alcohol, and I just came across this scene, I loved the colours and was mainly aiming to capture the colour and composition, but he was eating so voraciously, that he didn’t notice me, so it was just one of those perfect moments.”
We were coming to the end of a long and fascinating interview. Bob Cooley may walk the boundaries between photojournalism, documentary and street, and they are separate disciplines, but he does it with an astute understanding of what he is about behind the lens.
“Because I’m usually attempting to capture small, intimate moments, my approach is to do it with as much empathy for the subjects as possible,” Bob said thoughtfully. “My hope is that the viewer will not only create their own narrative within the frame I’ve captured, but will have some emotional connection to the image and the subject, whether that is through creating understanding, humour, anger… If I’ve made the viewer feelsomething about the subject or situation, then I feel like I’ve created a successful image.”
*When Bob worked as a journalist, he shot almost exclusively with Nikon gear and has everything from F2 to many FM’s. His favourite Nikon film camera are the F4’s. Shooting in the studio he has used Hasselblad, Mamiya, Sinar and others. For the last five years he has been shooting with Fuji, and his everyday carry is his X100V.
“I’ve owned and loved every iteration of the X100 series,” Bob told me. “In my mind it is a true street camera.these were
The photos in the interview, were shot either on the Fuji X100F, or the Fuji X-T2 w/ the 23mm ƒ/1.4 All are shot wide open (ƒ/2 and ƒ/1.4 respectively) and minimal to no cropping.
To see more, Visit Bob Cooley