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Meet Courtney Coles

Today we’d like to introduce you to Courtney Coles.

Courtney, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, and as far as I know, I’m the only artist in my family. My parents were always documenting me and my siblings on family trips or on our birthdays, and as I got older, I couldn’t go on a class field trip without my own disposable camera.

Fast forward to college: I switched my major from journalism to photojournalism and eventually left journalism for art school. I was 20 when I moved to Portland, and I soon realized you could take the girl out of journalism, but you can’t take the journalism out of the girl. I graduated with my BFA in photography from Pacific Northwest College of Art in 2014 (though my degree says 2016. That’s a funny story I’ll save for another day!). Two weeks after graduating college I did a full summer of the Vans Warped Tour for Hopeless Records photographing the bands they had out.

Once the tour ended, I spent the two years leading up to applying to graduate school photographing my daily life, musicians and also working at a few coffee shops. I went on tour with AW the Autumn of 2016, and it was on that tour I had a real heart-to-heart with myself on where I saw my photography going. I had the pull to apply to grad school, but I also wanted to see where freelancing would take me. After a few conversations with friends, I sat down for about a month and worked on my applications to California Institute of the Arts and School of Visual Arts.

After completing my application for CalArts, I started on my app for SVA, and I realized my heart wasn’t there. I didn’t want to move to New York (at least not for school), I didn’t want to say goodbye to my car (ha!), and I didn’t want to spend a great deal of time traveling back and forth to make work since I knew I wanted to work with my family. It’s wild to put all your eggs into one basket, but I did it once before (I only applied to PNCA), and it worked in my favor, so I had faith that if I was meant to be in grad school, I’d get into CalArts.

I’m currently six months away from receiving my Master of Fine Arts degree in Photography & Media at CalArts, and it has been the most challenging yet rewarding experience. During the time before I started grad school my punk sister in crime Erica Lauren approached me and asked if I wanted to get together with two of our friends, Carly Hoskins, and Danielle Parsons and have a little photo show. Nothing too big, just the four of us taking some of our favorite music photographs and hanging them in a gallery.

Before she was able to complete her sentence I told her, “yes, yes, a million times yes!” I had also been thinking of having a show with friends of some sort, so the fact that she said it to me felt as though the universe wanted this to happen. We called it “Girls to the Front” and all of our friends showed up to Almost Studio & Gallery on a Wednesday evening. We were overjoyed, overwhelmed and surprised at the massive turnout. Mainly because it was a Wednesday! Night! In! Los! Angeles!

And our friends were out not because they were attending a punk show, but because they wanted to see our work. That small little show has since traveled to Brooklyn, Toronto, Boston, Nashville, and Philly. We changed the name to “To the Front,” and our mission is to give female and non-binary artists the platform to showcase their work. We grew from 4 artists to 50 and as our family grows, so does my heart. It’s difficult navigating grad school and To the Front, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Smooth road? Haha, not at all! All financial reasons aside (because there’s really never enough time or space to talk about how the lack of funds can really hurt an artist’s self-esteem and hinder the drive it takes to produce work), my mom almost died in 2013 and I took the first flight that was available the next day to be by her side.

I was already photographing her at the time, but it made me realize that my time with her is extremely limited. There’s been hiccups since, including being rushed to the emergency room while I was in Nashville a few months back for one of my To the Front shows. She has a pacemaker now, and for the foreseeable future, she’s fine.

Personally? There’s been a lot of self-doubts, Imposter Syndrome playing the comparison game. It’s all so dangerous, and it’s easy to get caught up in it all.

We’d love to hear more about what you do.
I see myself as a photojournalist, a storyteller. I specialize in portraiture, and that’s simply because I enjoy being around people. I’m most proud of the way I’m able to make an image of someone, famous or not, and have it come off as something that’s genuine.

The way I’m able to blend in the background is something I’ve mastered. I’ve heard horror stories of how some photographers walk into rooms and take over the show and essentially throw off the energy, and I’ve made a conscious decision not to do that.

I don’t want you to know I’m in the room; I don’t want you to change the way you present yourself because I’m there. I actually don’t use my camera for the first half hour I’m in the room with someone because I want them to get used to me being there. It’s only when you hear the shutter release do you realize I’m making a photograph.

Of course, if I’m there for a short period of time, I’m not sitting idly by, but I always make sure I walk into the room with good energy because that can make or break an interaction. If I’m calm, my sitter is calm.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I’m incredibly lucky/blessed. I attribute everything to the fact that I am Extremely Online™ and folks find me that way.

Contact Info:


Image Credit:

Erica Lauren (byericalauren.com)

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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