Thomas Joshua Cooper
Fellow: Awarded 2009
Field of Study: Photography
Competition: US & Canada
Working solely with an 1898 Agfa field camera, Thomas Joshua Cooper has established himself as one of the foremost photographers of our time. He photographs only outdoors, but his pictures are far from nature “shots”: they are images he makes, or finds, each unique, with each site captured in a single exposure, and then rendered as a selenium-toned silver gelatin print.
He is perhaps best known for his Atlas Project. Inspired by reading about Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world in the sixteenth century and the lasting impact that has had on world history, Mr. Cooper set out about twenty years ago to “chart” the Atlantic Basin, capturing points of land he had picked out on a map. He has published the photos from each segment of his photographic journey, from South Africa to Scandinavia (point of no return, 2004), along the eastern coast of South America (Ojo de Agua, 2006), in the Arctic and Antarctic (true – the Polar pictures, 2009), and, during his Guggenheim Fellowship term, up the eastern and Gulf coasts of North America, exploring the Rio Grande, Mississippi River, and Hudson’s Bay as well. Once this final section is completed, Mr. Cooper will collect these parts into a single work entitled An Atlas of Emptiness and Extremity.
Even though these creations start with a point on land, the Atlas pictures are made of the ocean or rivers, usually horizonless and unpeopled, his back to the shore. Nevertheless, his photographs are about neither the waters he captures with his camera nor the bit of earth that is his vantage point. As he has explained,
“Location finding, initially an instinctive activity, tells us nothing at all about any particular space. Pictures themselves detail nothing in any real particular way. My pictures are of common recognizable sea spaces, always different, like fingerprints, but not immediately identifiable or recognizable. These accumulative picture-spaces could be anywhere or everywhere. Yet the collective results that continue to drive, inform and complete the Atlas may well tell us something about a more difficult and allusive territory of human concern.
“By encircling the extreme edges of the entire Atlantic Basin, a physical acknowledgement of sources and extent of Western cultural heritage occurs. The Old and Classical Worlds of Europe and Africa collide and clash with the New Worlds of North and South America, and the Polar regions pressure outwards to push physical and psychological boundaries into unexpected tensions, one with the other.”
Mr. Cooper has seven other publications to his credit, among them Between Dark and Dark (Edinburgh: Graeme Murray, 1985); Dreaming the Gokstadt (Graeme Murray, 1988); wild (Santa Fe, NM: James Kelly Contemporary, 2001), a book of his poems; and, with Paul Hill, Dialogue with Photography (Farrar, Straus, 1979), a book of documentary interviews with Ansel Adams, André Kertész, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Brassaï, and fourteen other renowned photographers.
In addition, his photographs have been published in eighty-eight international journals, featured in almost one hundred solo exhibitions, and selected for inclusion in seventy-seven international group shows. More than fifty international public institutions have his work in their permanent collections.
Born in San Francisco, Thomas Joshua Cooper received both his B.A. (Humboldt State University, 1969) and M.A. in photography (University of New Mexico, 1972) with honors. After several years of teaching art and photography in California schools, he moved to England, where he taught and worked as an artist, with intermittent stays in America. The importance of his work was recognized early on on both sides of the Atlantic: he received the John D. Phelen Award in Art and Literature (1970), the first person to receive that award for photography; an Arts Council of Great Britain Major Photography Bursary (1976); and an NEA Fellowship in Photography (1978).
Mr. Cooper was also a Visiting Lecturer in Photography at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico (1973); a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art at Humboldt State University (1978-80); and a Visiting Artist at the University of Tasmania in Australia (1982).
In 1982, he was invited by the Glasgow School of Art to found and direct an undergraduate degree course in photography, the first anywhere in Europe at that time. He expected to return to the States after establishing this program, but he has remained a resident in Scotland ever since. His honors continue to accrue: in 1994 he was awarded a Scottish Arts Council Major Artist’s Award and was given a twenty-five-year retrospective exhibition, and accompanying publication, by the Gulbenkian Foundation, Centre for Modern Art in Lisbon, Portugal; and in 2005 he received the Scottish Arts Council and National Lottery’s Creative Scotland Award. He has also enjoyed long-term support for his Atlas Project from the Lannan Foundation. In 2007 he was elected a member of the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh.
Thomas Joshua Cooper is currently a Professor and Senior Researcher in Fine Art at the Glasgow School of Art. He is represented in London by Haunch of Venison and in New York by PaceWildenstein.