The Space Between
Photographs by Sisse Brimberg & Cotton Coulson
We, Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson, are partners in life as well as in photography. A couple for more than thirty years, we find that just as our lives are joined, so, too, our individual visions have merged to become a shared view. While each of us retains personal characteristics, our photography is strengthened by our collaboration.
For each of us photography was more than something we could do well: it represented a way in which we could organize our thoughts about the world and, best of all, it provided us with a vehicle through which we could communicate to others the world we experienced.
We both became National Geographic photographers in 1976, and both enjoyed considerable success with numerous stories and covers. The assignments ranged from rural life in Kansas to Catherine the Great’ Russia. The challenge of capturing each story in a new, fresh manner while still doing so in a way that matched the writers’ intentions imposed a discipline that made us constantly better communicators.
But after years of taking photos that “told the story” clearly and concisely we realized that on every assignment there were images that required a second look. These captured moments every bit as truthful as our “narrative” images, but which could only be fully understood by attention that went beyond the story context. As images they conveyed much and yet they were neither manipulated nor abstract. They were somewhere between straightforward narrative photographs – and pictures deliberately composed to create nonrepresentational images. They were neither the photographic metaphors of Robert Frank, nor were they the free-floating abstracts of Minor White. Furthermore, they were not the social-documentary images that traditionally told a photojournalist’s story. They are The Space Between.
We are hardly the first photographers to have explored this space nor have we abandoned all of our narrative work for the sake of this special realm. There is a truth in these photographs that comes from seeing the world as it really is: sometimes messy, sometimes nearly formless in its “organicity,” often unexpected and always fleeting. These photos share a common characteristic, you could never take the same shot the next day. They emerge from “the river into which no man steps twice.” In that respect they come closer to life than many other photographs that purport to represent reality.
When we consider these photos, we think in the usual terms of movement, tones, and texture. However, it requires more attention from the viewer to read these images. Sometimes they are tempted to venture further into The Space Between where we believe their mind engages in extra effort. Integral to that engagement is a shared understanding that these photographs capture a real image at a specific moment in time, but that it has been removed from the contextual frame that makes its meaning and reality understood. In that sense such an image may then be seen as a metaphor for the greater study required in navigating global truths. Context may not be everything but truth can be independent of context.
At one level all of photography is about ordering the world into pattern and light, repetition and disjunction, compression and expansion. Everyone serious about photography has followed the traditional rules of composition, broken the rules, gone back to the rules, and tried to find new rules. That’s not what these photos are about. They are not even about “a new way of seeing.” These photographs are simply about finding a complexity in everyday scenes that might otherwise be overlooked.