National Geographic photographer Cotton Coulson died in Norway the last week of May, after a scuba diving accident. (nppa.org)
When I first entered close orbit around planet National Geographic in the late 1980s, Cotton Coulson happened to be on a path to the outer apogee of his own NG life. We only met from time to time, socially, usually in association with his wife, NG photographer Sisse Brimberg. He was a curious person, who spewed all manner of ideas about photography and publishing in an aggressive style that I initially found off-putting. He seemed to be talking to me in a manner that said “you don’t get it, do you?”
I didn’t actively avoid Cotton, but I also was not particularly attracted to his slightly mocking approach. I indeed did not get it: I did not get him.
This would change. Years later, I married NG photo editor Kathy Moran, and began the usual pair-bonding process of melding our various friends. Kathy and Sisse were close—and Cotton came with the package. This was around the beginning of the last decade, and at the time Sisse and Cotton were in California, where Cotton worked for CNET. I had recently decamped from NG for U.S.News & World Report, where we had just missed each other (Cotton had been Associate Director of Photography and I came in as Creative Director). The fact that we both had distanced ourselves from NG became a first layer of glue applied between us.
Since we lived quite a distance apart (we would never live in the same area, alas) we did not see each other that often. But when we did meet up, we would get absorbed in all manner of topics around publishing, technology, photography and art.
That was one of the things I admired about Cotton: he never fell into a predictable professional career path. When I first met him back in '80s he was actually selling insurance to photographers. Photographer-Insurance Salesman, now there was a unique combo. But in the ensuing years he would pursue different challenges at U.S.News, The Baltimore Sun, CNET, along with his own photography and film making. And he was a passionate source of information on whatever technology or digital publishing platform was hot.
Then I made my own odd career move, becoming Director of Photography at National Geographic magazine. It was a curious shift for me since I had marked the center of my career as a graphic designer (with a passion for photojournalism and publishing technology). I was honored to be in this position, but I was also struggling with the complexity and mixed embrace from those I oversaw. My time as DOP was fraught to say the least. And when Cotton and I were together, he was a significant help as I sorted through the struggles I was enduring.
Over time I discovered that his overly aggressive approach turned out to be something much different. When Cotton questioned you, it was not—as I had felt when we first met—to challenge your knowledge or sensabilities; it was to push you. And his advice, more often than not, was to support making a change, to take a risk. I sensed that Cotton abhorred those who embraced the status quo or sought shelter away from the turmoil that always accompanied making leaps of faith. When cracks appeared, while some might try to seal them, Cotton pried them wider—and then slipped through. His ability to see opportunity in the chaos became a major inspiration.
We would see each other more often as Kathy and I increased traveling, usually adding a day or two to a business trip when we were near he and Sisse. We even travelled together on a Lindblad tour of Antarctica. But the trip that would leave the most significant, personal impact on me about Cotton, was during a true vacation to Tuscany.
Cotton, along with being so many things, had also been an abstract painter. I have drawn and painted most of my life, so we had something—which had nothing to do with journalism—to bond over. (Disappointingly, I never did get to see his work before he destroyed all his canvases. I only learned of this after his death, so never had a chance to question him on it.)
My work is mostly landscape, and so on our trip to Italy, I naturally made a number of drawings as we toured about. One day I was sketching in the courtyard of the house we had rented north of Sienna, when Cotton walked up and looked over my shoulder. I tend to be shy when I’m working, so I figured this was as good as any moment to stop. But then Cotton leaned forward and, with his unique blend of goading and upbeat tone, simply said: “Keep going.”
Really? OK. So I did one more pass over the drawing as Cotton walked off to take make photographs. And, indeed the final pastel was better, more refined. Continuing was absolutely the right move.
And ever since, whenever I find myself at such junctions, where I need to decide if I should stop or continue, I hear Cotton’s two words pushing me to take another swipe at the canvas.
But here’s the thing, his encouraging advice is more than just about art, it is a broader approach to life itself, embodied by someone for whom stopping was the worst possible choice anyone could make.
And so it is why the sudden loss of Cotton is such a shock—I never imagined a world where he was not out there learning something, reinventing himself, or exploring a new place. Cotton was the one that I assumed all along would always, just simply, keep going.