Her camera is her paintbrush. Her muse? Anyone and everything. Liesa Cole of Liesa Cole Photography lives her life much like her career — with few boundaries and a lot of passion. When it comes to subject matter, she doesn’t discriminate. Her creative eye captures what most don’t see — an underlying story worth telling, worth seeing. Since becoming embedded in Birmingham’s creative community, Liesa has become a strong proponent of what the Magic City has to offer in the arts. When she’s not photographing people, places, pets and everything in between, you’ll probably find her enjoying a cocktail at her favorite local haunt or checking out a show at a nearby gallery. Chat with her for a few minutes, and her joy becomes contagious. We’re thrilled to share Liesa’s vivacious personality with you. Meet our latest FACE of Birmingham, Liesa Cole!
How did you get started in photography?
I was a theater kid. Acting was my passion. I went to LSU on a theater scholarship with the intention to become a serious actor. But, I needed a fine art elective, so I took up photography. I fell in love with the medium as a way to express myself with more permanence than theater allowed. In theater, we would rehearse for a month. So much work would go into preparing for that live performance. And then “poof” — it was over. I loved that with photography, I could plan and execute a photo shoot to express an idea, and I would have something tangible afterward.
How would you describe your photography style?
Ever-evolving, constantly … recently, an art director was discussing the difference between “taking” and “making” photos. Some people have a knack for “taking” exceptional photos. They have a keen eye for grabbing moments as they happen. My style is much more deliberate, planned and directed. I think my style of photography is more like painting and choreography. I wonder if it is because of my background in theater. I love a composed tableau, beautifully or strikingly lit.
What’s something most people don’t know about what it’s like to be a professional photographer?
I think most people would be surprised to know the amount of work and time that goes into the before and after of a shoot. Pre-production could involve conceptualizing, researching, location scouting, light-testing, casting, daydreaming, etc. The actual shoot might only take an hour or two. But, then, you are at the computer for hours processing, editing and retouching. I love all the stages in the process. I love the meditative phase, the brainstorming, the energy and collaboration of the shoot and then, the zen-like solitary mode of noodling with the images in post, adjusting the tones and mood of the image until it satisfies me.
What are your favorite things to photograph?
I love to photograph people, for sure, whether famous or homeless and everybody in between. I have found, we are all essentially the same deep down. And I aim to extend the same dignity to all. So, I love to find those connecting points. Trusting someone to record your image is a uniquely intimate exercise. I don’t take the privilege lightly. That said, I also thoroughly enjoy photographing places and objects too. On some level, it is all light and form. The challenge with each is to find the vantage point and light to maximize the viewer’s appreciation of whatever is before my lens.
How have you seen the creative community in Birmingham grow and evolve?
Wow, I have been saying that Birmingham is in the midst of a creative renaissance period for almost a decade. It just keeps building. Things were percolating slowly and then, BOOM! In the past few years, it seemed to reach a critical mass tipping point. Now, there is so much exciting creative synergy happening all around us. Spaces like MAKEbhm, which provides critical workshop and studio space for makers, and the emergence of FORMA, a world-class dance studio for adults to collaborate on ways to express art through movement. The music scene is alive with great venues and emerging artists from Birmingham in all genres getting national recognition. Sidewalk Film Festival has done so much to elevate the local film industry. And, now they have begun breaking ground on the state-of-the-art screening room for independent films. The Birmingham Museum of Art has continued to step up their game through acquisitions of important works from living artists and staging world-class exhibitions that challenge and inspire and seek inclusion from our entire community, not just the typical museum-going crowd. Magic City Art Connection has always been a favorite of mine, but now they have spawned more art festivals in neighboring communities that continue to expand exposure to the arts for children and adults.
Describe your perfect night out in Birmingham. Where would you go? What would you do?
So many great options here. First of all, my husband Stan and I would hop on our bikes. I would be wearing some ridiculous platform shoes, and we would pedal first to OvenBird or Bamboo to meet up with a pack of friends for a few small plates and a cocktail to get the party started. Then we would pedal to a show at BFT or Theatre Downtown or catch an art opening at Space One Eleven or another local gallery. Then, we would hit Chez Fonfon for a late-night treat, sit at the bar and share a wedge of coconut cake and some decaf or head over to The Essential and grab the last piece of lemon tart. We would cap the night at The Atomic, don a costume (maybe Elvis or the banana) and play silly games while sipping on Chase Lewises and Sex Panthers and laugh ourselves silly before pedaling home with full bellies and full hearts!
Favorite vacation spot?
This is different every time because I prefer to explore and experience new places when I travel. Most recently, Havana, Cuba. It was wonderful. The colors, the pace, the warmth of the people, the music, the juxtaposition of grandeur and decay — pure poetry. I absolutely loved it. But, I may never go back, just because there are so many other places I haven’t been yet!
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I was once a fire artist. I used to spin fireballs in a circus sideshow act. Also, I was an actor and appeared in shows like “Dallas” and the miniseries “North and South.” Oh, and I had a little morning show for a minute called “Sunrise Live.” That was a lifetime ago now.
If you could have dinner with anyone living or deceased, who would it be and why?
Today, I would have to say Nellie Bly! I was just reading about her and am so inspired by her fearlessness, her intellect, her passion for humanity and her sense of adventure! She was the world’s first “immersion journalist.” She pretended to be insane and had herself committed to an asylum so she could report on the horrible conditions inside the “madhouses” of the day. She did a circumnavigation of the world in 72 days just to see if Jules Verne’s 80-day limit could possibly be achieved in real life. And she patented several inventions, including the modern oil drum, designed to minimize leaking. All this at a time in the late 19th Century when women were not taken seriously and barred from most professions and pursuits … just unbelievable. I would love to pepper her with questions and hear her stories. She is a phenomenon to me, a total badass way ahead of her time.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Follow your passion. Do what you love best, and your passion will separate you from the pack. Thanks, Dad.
What are three light-hearted or frivolous things you can’t live without?
Kombucha, Trader Joe’s dark chocolate and sea salt almonds, and my dog, Max
And thank you to Liesa Cole for the cool self-portraits!