Thomas Joshua Cooper, 57, has produced deeply spiritual and beautifully crafted landscape photographs informed by art, history, literature, philosophy and past photography.
Travelling to lonely, austere places, with his 19th-century large-format camera, Cooper makes images of rocks, water, forest and sky that suggest the great natural rhythms of creation, death and rebirth.
He works in the wilderness, a lone voice utterly without irony, quietly but firmly set against the post-Modernist grain.
He has been widely exhibited in galleries and museums in Europe, the UK and US, often alongside Land artists, such as Hamish Fulton or Richard Long. This month a survey of 10 years of his work opens at the Fundacion César Manrique on Lanzarote, Cape Verde Islands (21 November-9 February). He spoke to The Art Newspaper about his world vision.
The Art Newspaper: When did you envision the future course of your work as a landscape artist?
Thomas Joshua Cooper: On April Fools’ Day, 1969, in See Canyon, below the town of San Luis Obispo, about 150 miles south of San Francisco. I made the decision that from that day on I would only ever make outdoor pictures. I've never stopped, or even thought about breaking the vow, for 33 years.
TAN: Was this after you got that marvellous old camera?
TJC: I had acquired it two years before, from the 70-year-old son of the original owner, but I started using it that year. Though it’s a very low tech camera—five inch by seven, made in Birmingham, New York, 1898—it took me a while to figure it out how to use it. I wanted a lens that was very precisely equivalent to how eyes see.
TAN: Are you not part Native American?
TJC: I never paid any attention to it. My father was a half-breed Cherokee and I lived the early part of my life, till probably 10 or 12, all over America, but in part on three different reservations.
TAN: What brought you to Britain? Was it to set up the photography department in Glasgow?
TJC: I came over here the first time in 1973, as soon as I could after Richard Nixon was elected president. I left because he just made me crazy. I was given an opportunity to work here and I bought a one-way ticket, brought my camera, a box of books and a suitcase and that was it. I never intended to go back. I left Britain for the first time in 1979, after Thatcher got elected, and after I concluded the first of a series of exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery. I thought, “Okay, going from crazy to crazy, let's go home!” So I left England and moved back to California to rethink, as it were, both my work and the world. I went walkabout for a few years to Mexico and to Australia and back and then I was invited to found the department of photography at Glasgow School of Art, in 1982. I figured well, hell, Scotland has this political history that I’m kind of interested in and it wasn't anywhere else I had been, so I stayed for three years and I thought, “God, it’s okay here.” The airport became international and it was easier for me to work.
TAN: Your 2001 exhibition, “At the very edges of the world” at Tate St Ives, featured all four North European compass points centred on Britain. In your recent show at Blains Fine Art in London, the axis was north/south, from the northern most points of Scotland, the Western Isles, Wales and Ireland, to the southern most points of England and Ireland. You’ve surveyed the River Rhine, from its source in the Alps to its five mouths. Recently, you circumnavigated the Canaries, Lanzarote and Madeira. Aside from cartography, what have they in common?
TJC: All the work has to do with a kind of longing, although it's slightly cringe- making to hear it, I'm sure. It's about learning how to settle finally in your head. How do I re-establish belonging, or can I, on a personal or private level, wherever I am? I guess I've always needed to be at an edge, whether it was a canyon edge, a cliff edge or the sea.
TAN: Is it all part of a master plan?
TJC: I have to work relatively systematically. I've made 60 or so pictures of the Rhine, from its three sources in the Alps to its five mouths, along the Dutch coast. What is very exciting is that the museum in Bonn and the museum in Koblenz, obviously both along the Rhine, are interested in becoming part of something that I hope includes four other museums, in a trail of museums along the Rhine. Right now I'm working in the island chains from Finisterre in Spain to Madeira to the Canaries and Lanzarote, for the Spanish show. After that I will go to the Azores and Cape Verdes and then I will start heading north again to the Arctic islands. to Iceland but definitely to the beginning of Hudson Bay. Then I’ll continue this looking at the Old World and the New
TAN: Are you mapping the world or our place in it?
TJC: Not just the place, but what happens when certain kinds of demands are made on it: to see the unknown; to deal with, and to domesticate the unknown, and then, of course, the inevitability of exploiting what becomes the known. I believe that simply by standing in the sight of places where traffic from the Old World—which I consider African as well as European—occurred towards the New, and where the immigration and the migration and the commercial exploitation occurred, we see that something happened in the New World that moved it back to the Old World. Maybe what it suggests is that reclamation is possible.
TAN: This involves a lot of travel, followed by the time consuming process of developing, hand printing and toning each work yourself. How do you find the time?
TJC: Often my pictures will have two dates: the date that I made the negative and the date that I finally made the print. For example, the “Treelines” were probably eight or nine years just in the gathering of the pictures.
TAN: Is the Lannan Foundation, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sponsoring this ongoing project?
TJC: Yes, it’s a foundation which supports writers and indigenous land rights, and occasionally work with artists who have very large projects. For example, along with the Dia Foundation, they are underwriting James Turrell's Roden crater.
In some ways, land is central to their concerns and they have kindly tucked me under their wing to help me make this huge sea project which I generically call: “The world's edge: the Atlantic Basin project”. I've been asked to make an interim show of it and I've decided I will make it next May. There'll be somewhere between 30 and 45 large pictures, of which 23 are finished, and new work called: “Following the sea”, and an eight-part work called: “The world's edge” remembering Magellan, moving down the capes of Portugal from the western-most point of continental Europe, to the south-western-most point of continental Europe with the Renaissance sea explorers.
Thomas Joshua Cooper was born in San Francisco in 1946 and grew up in rural Wyoming, New Mexico, North Dakota and Oregon. He studied art, literature and philosophy, obtaining a Master’s degree in photography in 1972, before teaching in England, the US and Tasmania. Settling in Scotland in 1982, he founded the Department of Photography at Glasgow School of Art, which he still runs. Cooper has published Dialogue with Photography (Paul Hill, 1979), interviews with 21 major photographers, recently reissued in English and Spanish, plus six books of his own photographs. In May 2003, his new, large, seascapes will be shown by the Lannan Foundation, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Some 30 Rhine pictures will first be shown at Bughahn und Kaimer’s new gallery in Düsseldorf, before his new book, Plotting the River, is published by Steidl in October 2003, followed by a European tour of the Rhine pictures at the Bonn and Bregenz Kunsthalles and Kunstrhine, Koblenz. His 30-year retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum, LA, opens in December 2003. As a commission piece for the show there will be a new body of work, large pictures of the “Capes of California”.