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Show Me a Story: Photographer Jim Cole Looks Back at a Career Spent Behind the Lens

Toby Talbot
Jim Cole and friends on Jim Cole Day last week.

Last Wednesday at the State House, Governor Hassan declared December 21st to be “Jim Cole Day,” in honor of the Concord-based AP photographer. Over his more than 30 years covering the news, Cole assembled a portfolio that spans the state. But it was his pictures of New Hampshire’s political scene that had the biggest impact. 

From George McGovern ice fishing on Lake Winnipesaukee to Barack Obama throwing a snowball in Exeter, Cole has “showed” us the story of Presidents - and would-be presidents.  

In 1970, Life Magazine photographer Yael Joel spoke to a group of 7th graders in Mount Kisco, New York. He showed some of his famous pictures, talked about his craft.

That evening 13 year old Jim Cole went home.  “I’m going to be a photographer,” he told his father. “One day my pictures are going to be in Life Magazine.” 

“My father worked in New York City,” Cole says, “And he used to take the train from Mt. Kisco, New York into the big city every day.”

Commuting home in 1984, Jim Cole’s father flipped through the latest issue of Life.  “And all of a sudden on the train he screams,” Cole says, “He noticed that his son has a picture in Life magazine. It brought tears to my eyes then. And it's almost doing the same now. It made my father so proud.”

It was the first - but not the last time - Cole’s photos would make it into Life. But today, on Jim Cole Day, he hasn’t touched his camera.  

“I haven't taken a photo in a week,” he says. “I mean. I'm in a new era. Kind of bouncing around. I don't think I missed anything. But I will assure you, I have a camera at the ready.”

Laura Kiernan, a former reporter who worked at the Washington Post, Boston Globe and NHPR, says she was shocked when she heard Cole had been let go from the AP last week, part of an organization-wide belt-tightening at the company.

“He's a legendary figure here,” Kiernan says. “He is somebody that everybody knew, everybody recognized, but most importantly you knew that if Jim was there, you were going to get a great shot. You knew it.”

Credit Laura Kiernan
Laura Kiernan's shot of Jim.

David Parker, the host of this evening’s party, met Cole 25 years ago.  It was a Friday, it was snowing, and Parker decided to play hooky from work. “And I left my house and instead of taking a right going to Concord, I took a left and went to Cannon,” Parker recalls. “And who's up there but Jimmy Cole.”

Cole was on the mountain taking pictures of skiers for the Monitor.

“The next morning I'm in bed and I'm sleeping late,” Parker says. “But my wife didn't know I'd gone skiing. So she comes up with the Concord Monitor and goes, ‘So Dave how was work yesterday?’ Oh it was, you know. it was OK.  ‘Then what's this?!’ There's a quarter-page picture in the Monitor of me skiing down Cannon and I was busted!

Credit David Parker
David Parker's shot of Jim (note the shirt!)

Parker and Cole have been friends ever since. 

“He is one of the kindest people I know,” Parker says. “He would never in his life say anything bad about anybody.  I've never heard it. He can't. It's not in his bones.”

A glass is struck and there are calls for a speech from Cole. After the speech, Cole goes outside to get a beer - and to give Adam Sexton a lottery scratch ticket.  

“I'm not sending you a Christmas card,” Cole tells him. “That's it. Don't scratch early, scratch in the right place.”

Sexton, a political reporter and weekend host on WMUR, first met Cole during the 2007 presidential primary.

“He's just this, as I call it, the rugged gentlemen of the campaign trail,” Sexton says. “He's not subversive but he puts art into his photos and that's not something you always see in news photography.”

Sexton shows me a photo he took on his phone while at a Marco Rubio event last year.

“And I was you know tap tap tapping away at the screen and I come down and I look at the screen and there, deep in the field, way in the background is Jim Cole,” Sexton says. “ And I think to myself ‘Man I wish I had thought of that.’

Credit Adam Sexton
Adam Sexton's shot of Jim.

Jim Cole, wild scraggly Jim Cole, has the unusual habit of smiling at friends and even strangers without expectation. As though to simply see another person is enough.

“He travels in all circles fluidly and can, you know, just hang anywhere,” Parker says. “With no pretense and with glee. That's Jimmy Cole.”

What’s also Jimmy Cole is a kind of ongoing gratitude - which can be seen when he rises to give his second speech of the night. But David Parker interrupts: “You already did this!”

“Oh then forget it!  I’m outta here!” Cole shouts in mock anger.

This morning, Cole rose, knowing he’d soon stand beside the governor as she announced that today, December 21st, would be Jim Cole Day.  He put on his best shirt and then took it off.  

“I thought you know, that's too formal,” Cole says. “I'm going for my flannel.”

Not just any flannel.  This is a shirt that looks like it was stitched together, possibly by Jim, from the remains of nine other shirts. 

“Easily the best shirt anyone has ever worn in the Executive Council Chambers…” WMUR’s Adam Sexton tweeted. 

Asked what he thinks about having a day named after himself, Jim Cole pauses. “I'm not sure what Jim Cole Day means,” he says.  

But following his example, we could say: On Jim Cole day, don’t take any pictures.  Smile and look at people as though that’s enough.  Say "thank you" twice.  Follow your intuition, not the crowd.  Wear a shirt made of other shirts.  Do it all without pretense . . . and with glee.  

Sean Hurley lives in Thornton with his wife Lois and his son Sam. An award-winning playwright and radio journalist, his fictional “Atoms, Motion & the Void” podcast has aired nationally on NPR and Sirius & XM Satellite radio. When he isn't writing stories or performing on stage, he likes to run in the White Mountains. He can be reached at shurley@nhpr.org.

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