Elbow room

Beatrice Colin talks to photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper about his forthcoming exhibition of Scottish landscapes.

When photography has the ability to capture the essence of a place. it makes viewers feel they are looking at it for the very first time. Thomas Joshua Cooper’s pictures are more than black and white portraits of places. Contemplative and melancholy, land and seascapes are rendered in crystalline detail and echo with subterranean depth. They focus on a single truth.

The American who greets me at the Glasgow School of Art is not what I expect. Modest and enthusiastic in equal measures, his most over-used phrases are, ‘St0p me if I’m not making any sense’, and ‘God, I love this picture.‘

Born in San Francisco to a half-breed Native American Indian father, he was brought up on Indian reservations fishin’, loggin’ and shootin’. Cooper has spent the last eleven years at Glasgow School of Art as head of the Fine Art Photography department and has built up a sizeable body of work taken in Scotland. But these works are not single images chosen from a contact sheet. Each is the product of a long gestation process.

‘My belief is that if a picture can disappear, I ought to let it disappear. So often l’ll walk into a place or drive around it and try and get into the part of the place I want to work in. I never bring my camera with me when l’m looking to make a picture because what I’m seeing is initially physical but also emotional. It depends on the time of day, the light, the weather, my mood which is variable. I find the picture by being in the land without the camera and then bring the camera in. I usually take long exposures and I only take one negative. The process

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is to try and prepare myselfemotionally, mentally and physically to just be as alert and sensitive as the camera plate is. l either make it in a oner or don’t and I never ever go back. When it works I feel fantastic and when it doesn’t, it’s a disaster but that’s the way I make them.’

Cooper’s pictures give visual elbow room, their resonance acting as a catharsis.

‘All these pictures are formed by a process which I call gazing, which is an extended sort of looking. It deals with the duration of physical time that allows you tojust move out of the world of little incidents and thoughts, bothers and stress, to find the time to quieten down. settle and I hope become extremely intensively alert to what ever is happening around them. That also means to allow the history of my memory to sift into the looking, and seeing process so the gazing is to do with the physical sensation as well as an emotional one. It’s inside and out.’

The exhibition is split into three categories; sea. rock and trees and brush, with the images accompanied by simple texts. Cooper rarely photographs famous places and prefers to find his setting by poring over maps or by curiosity. ‘I only work at the kind of fringe areas; the places which used to be inhabited and basically are no longer,’ he says. ‘l’m interested in the areas where rural inhabitants, agricultural, seafaring inhabitants or whatever kind of primitive tribal inhabitants used to be or might still be. I’m also interested in solitude.

I’m not interested particularly in wildemesses. I grew up in the wildemesses. I need a relationship with humankind. All of the places I’ve work in are places where people have worked, lived in, died in had to leave because either they have been economically changed or they’ve been overcome or assumed by a majority or cultural situation. I’m interested in margins.’

The majority of the work for this show has been assembled from the vast number of pieces held in public and private collections across the country. ‘Submerging, emerging, submerging’, a tn'ptych of Staffa, will be on display as will ‘Tumbling,


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trembling stone’ and ‘Wind riffling memories’. His pieces often take years to make and this show will also include a few new pieces which he started working on three years ago. ‘My newest work which will be in the show is called the ‘Four Nonhs’. Working from the northem-most parts of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, I decided to just see what the sea and land look like on the last toe-hold of the farthest north of each country. It’s basically a body of work which I hope requires us to remember something about the history of our evolution as humans from rural creatures to urban creatures without making a judgement. Whatever way we move we lose something from shifting from one area to another. It is perhaps useful to remember some of the things we’ve lost as we become a new urban race. '

‘My belief is that it a picture can disappear, I ought to let it disappear. So often I’ll walk into a place around it and try and get into the part of the place I want to work In.’

Cooper pulls out a few prints from his drawer. A huge abstract of the sea is only recognisable by the spray of a wave in the left hand comer. It’s breathtaking.

‘l was standing up to my neck in the sea,’ he comments. ‘lt's called Looking towards Scotland; the Atlantic I’m moving more and more away from pure recognition of objects to using tone and time. I suppose I’m always aiming to have that sense of edge which you can approach, a sense of longing, remembrance, hopefully some quality of potential danger and attraction. Am 1 making any sense? God I love this picture. It’s the only one.

Sojourn 11 Years is at the Glasgow School of Art 11—30 Oct.

54 The List 8-21 October 1993