An Interview With Georgia Photographer Cole Whitworth

Cole Whitworth touched base with US 17 last year, to let us know about his Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) photography project focused on Highway 17 around Brunswick, Georgia. I was thrilled that he was willing to share his photographs with us here – this was a stretch of Highway 17 that I haven’t spent much time on, but more importantly, I loved how Cole captured the ordinary in an extraordinary way. His work shown here is with a large format camera (you can click on the images for a larger view).

You can see more of Cole’s work at his websites, and WHITPIX.

This is the third Q&A here at US 17, the first was with photographer and historian Brian Brown and the second with photographer C. Michael McCall, both Georgia photographers.


US 17: So tell me about your project at the Savannah School of Art and Design, that led you to photograph Highway 17? Also, you’ve recently graduated from SCAD – what are you up to now?

Cole Whitworth: While I was at the Savannah College of Art and Design, I was in an architectural landscape photo class that led me to the Hwy 17 project. One day I was returning from Jacksonville, FL after picking my sister up from the airport down there and instead of taking I-95 North to Savannah, we decided to take the “road less traveled.” While driving along the road, I noticed so many different buildings that stood out to me. So many of them had been neglected for years and years and I found a great interest in coming back to document them. That’s sort of how my project started and then I later narrowed it to a specific area on Hwy 17, the strip that comes in and out of Brunswick, GA.

After graduation I’ve been able to continue photographing different areas along the road, some along I-95 as well as in other cities while visiting. I interned with a magazine for a few months in Savannah and have been shooting anything I can. I am also in the works of making a book out of the images I’ve made from my project and hope to release that in the new year.


US 17: When did you first start taking photographs – and do you remember your first camera and the first photograph you took where you thought “hey, this might be something”?

Cole Whitworth: I first got into the art of photography when I was a freshman in high school at the Savannah Arts Academy. The great photographer, Jack Leigh, was helping to start up the photo program at the school and I quickly became interested in signing up for a class. I had great teachers there that really helped me develop an eye for taking pictures. My first camera, of which I still own and use today, was the Nikon FM 10. I can remember spending a little over $300 for it and thinking, “Wow, thats expensive.” My perspective has changed greatly since then. I started out learning classic B&W photography, shooting and developing film and then making prints in the darkroom. I can’t remember the first image I made but I’m sure it wasn’t good. Over my years in high school, I really developed a passion for the art and thought this was something I want to pursue in life and create a career out of.


US 17: What camera did you use for the images shown here?

Cole Whitworth: The camera I used to shoot this project was a large format camera and I used Kodak 4×5 film to record the images on. I prefer this camera over a digital one when shooting architecture or landscape because of the great detail you get from using such a large negative and its better for correcting perspective which helps to prevent distortion. Because film is so expensive now, it also really makes you focus on what you’re shooting and in a way, forces you to make the best composition possible instead of firing off a lot of snapshots. It requires time and discipline when using a large format camera. I feel it also shows a level of craftsmanship.


US 17: I love your photographs of gas stations – when did your obsession with gas stations begin?

Cole Whitworth: The obsession with gas stations happened over a year and a half ago when I was in SCAD and did a project that showed gas stations shot at night to document and show the high prices we were constantly having to pay day in and day out. When I look at those images now, over a year later, I see the price of gas has gone down a little but not much. I’m not sure we will ever see gas below $2.50 a gallon.


US 17: On your website, you have the quote “Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph” by Matt Hardy. What do you see that makes your photographs unique? And what do you look for when you’re driving down the road, picking places to photograph?

Cole Whitworth: I love that quote. I feel that I try and see things for what they once were. Beauty in the lost and forgotten. Buildings that were once occupied and carried life in them that are now left for the earth to reclaim. I really try and focus on crafting the best perspective and seeing what the best angle would be to shoot at. Looking at the image as a whole and not just as one subject. As for finding subject matter while driving, I am always on the look out for buildings in need of repair as well as buildings being re-used such as an old fast food restaurant that is now a party supply store or a gas station that is now a dry cleaners. I’ve seen a lot of great stuff down here in the south and love the great history to the areas I’ve been able to visit.


US 17: I have to ask: do you have a favorite stretch of Highway 17? What do you think makes the Coastal Highway so unique?

Cole Whitworth: I don’t have a favorite part of Hwy 17, not yet at least. I still need to travel north bound on it more and see it through SC, NC and VA. It’s such a long roadway. A lot to see. I really like the coastal highway though because of the beautiful scenery. The marshlands are just so great to drive alongside and I love being close to the water.