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.

"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

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