Photograph by Ralph Lee Hopkins, Nat Geo Image Collection
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National Geographic photographer Cotton Coulson is seen here in Scoresby Sound, Greenland, in 2012.

Photograph by Ralph Lee Hopkins, Nat Geo Image Collection

Cotton Coulson, National Geographic Photographer, Dies

Admired photographer dies in Norway after losing consciousness on a scuba dive.

Cotton Coulson, a National Geographic photographer and filmmaker, died Wednesday, May 27, after losing consciousness while diving off the coast of Norway.

The dive was part of a 17-day National Geographic expedition to Norway’s Fjords and Arctic Svalbard archipelago on a 150-passenger cruise ship operated by National Geographic Expeditions and Lindblad Expeditions.

Coulson, 63, shot more than 40 stories for National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler. He spent most of his career in Europe, shooting and filming a range of assignments extending from the Arctic and Scandinavia to Italy and France.

In recent years, Coulson and his wife, photographer, Sisse Brimberg, served as experts on National Geographic expeditions, leading photo walks, coaching tourists on photography and sharing stories of their time in the field.

“National Geographic is devastated by the loss of our longtime friend and contributor,” said Lynn Cutter, National Geographic’s executive vice president, Travel and Licensing.

Coulson and Brimberg, Cutter added, “were adored by the crew, staff and guests who had the good fortune to travel with them.”

The incident occurred Sunday, May 24, on the fifth day of the cruise. Colson and his diving partner were diving in cold water to capture images that would be shared with the passengers on the cruise when Coulson signaled to his partner to ascend, according to members of the cruise team. 

Soon after, Coulson lost consciousness. He was helped to the surface and onto a Zodiac, and taken back to the ship. He was then transported to a local hospital in Sandnessjoen, Norway, and then transferred to a larger facility in Tromso. He died Wednesday evening.

Coulson was a 1975 graduate of New York University Film School and joined National Geographic as a contract photographer in 1976. His assignments included stories about Ireland, Berlin and the Brendan Voyage, a sixth century sailing trip across the Atlantic by an Irish monk. Coulson won numerous awards from the National Press Photographers Association and the White House Press Photographers Association.

He also served as associate director of photography at U.S. News & World Report and director of photography at the Baltimore Sun.

In the mid-1990s, Coulson joined the internet revolution and moved his family to San Francisco, where he became vice president of CNET Networks, a media website focused on technology news.

The family then moved to Paris and, later, to Denmark, Sisse’s home country.

“The wonderful thing about Cotton was how completely he immersed himself in his stories,” said Cathy Newman, a National Geographic writer and editor. “When he did a story on Italy, he came back completely Italianized, with this tailored slick Italian suit and exquisitely polished leather shoes. When he did a story on Kansas, he came back chewing on a stalk of wheat. Sisse used to say she never knew who she was going to meet coming off the plane after he was done with an assignment.”

Coulson and Sisse met at a National Geographic photography seminar and over the course of a 30-year marriage, often worked together. They own a media company, KEENPRESS, which produced photography and HD films on the environment, climate science and international travel.

“Most of us divide time between family and career,” said Ford Cochran, director of programming for National Geographic Expeditions. “They found a way to mingle those things, doing the things they loved.”

In addition to his wife, Coulson is survived by their adult children, daughter Saskia and son Calder; his parents, Robert Coulson and Mary Evangelista; two sisters and three brothers.

Service plans will be announced at a later date.