On The N.H. Primary Trail, One Photographer Has Gone His Own Way For Decades

Aug 18, 2015

Throughout the 2016 presidential season, NHPR is bringing you profiles of the people and places behind the scenes of the New Hampshire Primary. In our latest installment, we catch up with Jim Cole, the Associated Press photographer who has covered every New Hampshire presidential primary since 1980. 

Jim Cole has a rule he follows when out on assignment: No matter how crowded the press gaggle gets, he never takes a picture while he’s touching another photographer. The point is to force him to think of a different approach to each shot, and it's a strategy that's paid off over the years. Take, for instance, an appearance by George H.W. Bush at Nashua Airport during the 1988 campaign. 

Scroll through the gallery above to see some of Cole's iconic N.H. Primary images.

“All the photographers got on board the plane with him, and they walked through the back end of the plane into the cockpit area," Cole recalls. "I stayed outside, and with all the luck in the world, Bush stuck his head out the pilot’s window and waved to everybody. That picture, later on, was a double spread in LIFE Magazine. They used that picture on the side of buses in New York to sell the magazine."

This counter-current approach has defined Jim Cole's career. And, given that his career has included coverage of 10 New Hampshire presidential primaries, it's hardly the only time one of Cole's photos of a candidate campaigning in New Hampshire has landed on the front pages of a national publication. “He’s probably photographed every prominent politician who’s ever come through New Hampshire," says US Senator and former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen. “Not too long ago he sent me a picture he’d taken of me when I was working on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. That must have been sometime in 1979. 

"To have those pictures of what has happened in the political process in New Hampshire with presidential candidates coming in, with people who have won and lost in this state, is really a part of New Hampshire history and American history.”  

"He has that permanent grin"

 Cole’s own history as a photojournalist has an unusual start. He sold his first Associated Press photo in 1977, while a student at New England College in Henniker. Though, as he points out, the subject of this image was as far from presidential as one could get - “It was a llama that had escaped from a farm in Henniker, walking down the main street in town underneath the blinking red light with a cop car behind it and a row of cars behind it, and it was looking which way to go from there.”

That runaway llama photo helped lead Cole to a full-time job with the AP a few years later, and it taught him an important lesson: be ready for the story, however it unfolds. Cole once staked out the police station in Concord for hours – on New Year’s Eve, no less - to get the first photo of New York City’s infamous “subway vigilante,” Bernhard Goetz, as he turned himself into authorities. 

And in 1996, Cole made a daring rescue of film he'd just begun to process in a makeshift darkroom at Pat Buchanan’s election night headquarters, after Buchanan’s staff closed off access to the space:

“They ordered everybody out of the darkroom and locked the door and brought Buchanan by," Cole recalls. "Now our film is inside the developer in a locked room… We still had like a minute left in the developer – if you overdevelop you’re going to ruin everything. So the AP was about ready to lose all of its film of Buchanan declaring victory.

“I got into the lock with my Swiss Army knife, opened the lock, got the door open and with about 15 to 30 seconds left got the film from the developer into the bleach.” 

Stories like these have made Cole a legend among New Hampshire journalists. They love sharing stories about the man who taught himself to juggle while waiting for news events to start, the one who is so passionate about barbecue that he put together a mobile grilling rig that attaches to his truck. Colleagues laugh as they remember the time when the photographer's casual summer clothes clashed with a Circuit Court dress code: Cole ducked across the street to a secondhand shop and bought a suit and tie. 

Jim Cole (right) photographs Florida Senator Marco Rubio at a campaign event in Hollis, NH
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

  Those on the other side of Cole's camera agree that he stands out. "He has that permanent grin," says former State House Speaker Donna Sytek. "I wouldn’t be surprised to see him crawling along the floor – or you’d see him up in the balcony with that ever-present grin… He always looks like he’s having fun."

"They had the picture, but he had the scene"

But Cole the personality wouldn’t be nearly as important if Cole the photographer wasn’t any good. David Tirrell-Wysocki worked with Cole for decades at the Associated Press. He says what’s underneath the stories is a photographer who does his homework on every story, walking through the spaces where news events take place and finding ways to reveal the people and the process of the New Hampshire primary. 

“Walter Mondale, when he was running, made a big deal about going to the shores of the Merrimack River to fish with a kid," Tirrell-Wysocki says. "Most of the news pictures of the day showed the vice president and this person fishing alone on the banks of the Merrimack. Jim stood back and took a picture of the 15 or 20 photographers who were surrounding them in this supposedly peaceful scene, including one photographer who had gone out into the water and turned around and was shooting back. They had the picture, but he had the scene.”

New Hampshire journalists and politicians agree Jim Cole’s knack for capturing the whole scene has shown, perhaps better than any other photographer, the character of his home state and its role in the presidential process. Former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff John H. Sununu, even has an idea for the photographer. 

“If I could put a plug in here, a commercial plug to Jim Cole: he’s got to put together a book of his best New Hampshire primary photographs," Sununu says. "That book alone would be a great best seller.”

Such a book would serve as a chronicle of modern American politics, as seen by one of the most unique photographers to cover the New Hampshire primary.