'The World’s Edge' at LACMA marks Thomas Joshua Cooper’s 50 years of art practice

The artist, in an interview with STIR, talks about his exhibition that showed photographs depicting the psychological impact of each place, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

by Dilpreet Bhullar Published on : Feb 05, 2020

The presence of infinity and vastness in nature, if ever epitomised in its true form on earth, is inevitably with oceans. Many photographers have attempted to capture this, but few could indeed carry it within their framed works to successfully let the viewers peek into this world and have an experience that remains for a long time. Thomas Joshua Cooper is one such photographer, who with his latest exhibition The World’s Edge at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) highlighted the use of Agfa Ansco view camera that documented ‘sea spaces’ free of skyline and terrain.

In an interview with STIR, Cooper, a leading landscape photographer and the founder of Glasgow School of Art's Fine Art Photography Department, talks about his latest exhibition. 

North! The First Landing Site, Afternoon Drifting Fog, the Spring Equinoctial Ice Flow—The North Atlantic Ocean | The World’s Edge | Thomas Joshua Cooper | STIRworld
North! The First Landing Site, Afternoon Drifting Fog, the Spring Equinoctial Ice Flow—The North Atlantic Ocean Image Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Joshua Cooper

Dilpreet Bhullar (DB): Your painstakingly beautiful works are not just the result of travels to some difficult terrains, but also reinforce the expertise of a nuanced photographer. Could you provide us an insight into the art of photograph making?

Thomas Joshua Cooper (TJC): For me, this question is very useful in what it suggests. The first part of the question seems to acknowledge the profound distinctions between originating and making a photographic picture in the camera. Then making anew that picture in the darkroom. For me, both experiences of making pictures—in the camera and the darkroom—are an original, individual, interpretive and unique experiences. Your precise question asks about the making of photographs—the printed pictures representing the experiences that I picture in the outdoors with my camera.

All my photographic pictures are visual interpretations of the varietal experiences that I have incurred in both the uninhabited areas and the rural or domesticated areas. These fields, and the variety of experiences that I have found associated with them, have all, somehow, directly affected, and at times altered my understanding of what it is to be human. Thus, all picture making is extremely personal to me.

I always make pictures outdoors. My aim is that these pictures appear simple and believable, that they seem (somehow) familiar, but not so specific or particular enough to be taken for granted. I want my pictures to feel knowable, possibly stirring one's curiosity or memory and enticing possible approach. I want the sense of the passing of time to slow down for a viewer so that maybe the slowness of gazing might occur somehow in the viewing process. All these expectations from pictures that are large, black and white, slightly abstracted flat physical objects on the walls, that may not look like photographs. 

The North Atlantic Ocean, Home Strand Beach, Labrador, Canada, | The World’s Edge | Thomas Joshua Cooper | STIRworld
The North Atlantic Ocean, Home Strand Beach, Labrador, Canada, Image Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Joshua Cooper

I make photographs as objects – like drawings, sometimes like paintings, but not usually as traditional looking photographs. This can confuse a viewer. This leads us to the darkroom. The work I undertake in the darkroom to realise and make my pictures anew is as entirely solitary and concentrated as the work I undertake in the field to begin my picture-making processes (although in each case I am often necessarily helped by a skilled friend and colleague in my picture production).

Being willing to use all the time I need to make the print as well as I can make it, to reveal the picture within it, is central to my darkroom work. I must always allow the gift of a surprise to guide me to see each picture fresh and anew when printing it, and in ways that I did not expect to do so initially. I must always trust and utilise the importance and multiple joys of improvisation in the process of making the printed photograph. I must always use what I can of my constant explorations of the photographic process to benefit and advance my work – to make better, newer pictures than I thought I could.

I have not detailed my darkroom process here, but I have very carefully alluded to it and laid it out. It is a process of extremes – exactly paralleling my fieldwork. It is hugely time-consuming. It is personal and particular to me, especially as I individually handprint every photograph that I make. My picture-making processes are profoundly physical to make and to view. They are unique.

Furthest North—The Mid North Atlantic Ocean, Faro de Punta Delgada, Alegranza | The World’s Edge | Thomas Joshua Cooper | STIRworld
Furthest North—The Mid North Atlantic Ocean, Faro de Punta Delgada, Alegranza Image Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Joshua Cooper

My pictures, in the field, in the darkroom, in the public view, are individual interpretations of personal experiences with outdoor places. I utilise my photographic enlarger, paper and chemistry to the fullest extent any picture requirements placed on me to do so. They are never the same.

Printing is an extremely physical process for me. All my photographic prints are also unique as individual objects but printed within a small edition number (2 to 4 each). My pictures reveal themselves anew, every time in their printed photographic form – waiting to be seen and re-discovered anew like photographs, again and again.

Torrential Warm Rain—The Mouth of an Unnamed Stream and the South Atlantic Ocean | The World’s Edge | Thomas Joshua Cooper | STIRworld
Torrential Warm Rain—The Mouth of an Unnamed Stream and the South Atlantic Ocean Image Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Joshua Cooper

DB: Unlike many photographers who delve into both colourful and monochromatic colour palette, your preference for black and white is invariably visible. Any specific reason for it?

TJC: Black and white naturally abstract the view. I have found that there are all the colours of the rainbow in the extended tonal scale of grey to its extremes in black and white. The pictures are not black and white. The paper has a colour. The chemicals used add reds and light blues to the tones. The best light is early morning or late afternoon. There is more red refracted light at those times, giving heightened colour for picture-making. 

First Light—The South Indian Ocean, the Cape of Good Hope, #2, South Africa | The World’s Edge | Thomas Joshua Cooper | STIRworld
First Light—The South Indian Ocean, the Cape of Good Hope, #2, South Africa Image Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Joshua Cooper

DB: How important is critical depth to the artwork?

TJC: Critical depth, for me, is the central and most important general ingredient in a work of art. I am not sure I know what is meant by this phrase, but for me, it entails a deep and abiding personal need to make things, an accumulatively articulate skill based in the physical and communicative aspects of the particular making process, coupled with a working historical awareness of the place and purpose of making art in the time one lives in, and in a living sense of the value of the cultural purpose of art in one's own time. If these scattered ingredients are at hand in an artwork, in whatever proportion—intuitively or consciously—something exciting is likely to happen within that particular work.

The World’s Edge was on view till February 2, 2020, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, United States.

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