The Scotto-American photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper is a titan in his field. Dana Macfarlane reviews his new show, ‘The World’s Edge – The Atlas of Emptiness and Extremity’, at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and discusses the tensions in the work which is ‘unsettling’ and ‘subtly uncanny’.
According to ancient Greek myth, the god Zeus punished the titan Atlas for his part in the war against the gods by forcing him to forever carry the world on his shoulders. In 1595, the German-Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator paid tribute to Atlas, naming his map-adorned treatise on the creation, history and description of the universe an ‘atlas’. Since then, the term has been more narrowly conceived as a collection of maps – though of course maps are never simple: they delineate a history of human endeavour – both heroic and exploitative. Even in our era of satellites and digitisation they continue to symbolise a relationship between humankind and nature.
Thomas Joshua Cooper’s ‘Atlas of Emptiness and Extremity’ is not a collection of maps, though he is inspired by figures such as Magellan and Drake, early titans of circumnavigation. Instead, the photographs Cooper has made over the last thirty-two years, along the edges of the Atlantic Basin at precise North, South, West and East coordinates, returns us to Mercator’s model by encouraging us to reflect on the earth before it was mapped and known. Cooper wants “to see if I can make sense of why our culture has become what it has become”. Cooper does not let go of the fantasy of finding new territory (even gaining naming rights to an unmapped island) but his journey is predominantly one that leads backwards to origins. Cooper takes as a model St. Brendan the navigator, for whom heading out into a murky haar from the coast of Ireland was an act of faith, or sometimes Cherokee forefathers alert to the signs of nature both physical and divine. Ultimately Cooper’s faith lies in the medium of photography – always certain that a photograph will find a way to emerge from the constraints he has determined for his project. He is happy to relinquish some control in this act of faith and concede to accident in an otherwise precise and exacting ritual. His intention, then, is to photograph sites of extremity, both geographical edges and points of departure from the human history of diaspora and exploration, an origin story of the relationship between nature and culture. But the method and the atavism of his choice of technology recalls another origin story in the history of photography – tied as they are to the excitement of the first photographs. Like the first maps of the world, early photographs showed a world where, for a moment, it seemed possible to see things differently, as if the world itself emerged from this moment. It is this emergence that is evoked in Cooper’s mesmerisingly beautiful, nuanced and subtly tonal evocations of land and sea – the idea that one is seeing through some antediluvian lens to a first, to an origin, to something mysterious and out of reach, to a gap ‘before’ the grasp of the technological, before the world picture was taken. The fact that Cooper describes these photographs as “unique, dissimilar, not readily identifiable” adds to the atmosphere of a post-world-picture world – that is a moment after a romantic view of landscape, of a lone figure gazing out at a sublime sea. Here there are no human figures, and as viewers we are given little indication as to where we stand in relation to nature. There are few visible horizons to situate us – and those that exist are made strange by the way the prints draw ones’s gaze to the surface. It is all unsettling but in a subtly uncanny way; when Cooper writes that he wants to present something familiar he acknowledges perhaps that our experience is in fact of unfamiliarity or strangeness.
Cooper speaks and writes about his method. He rejects conventional language for photographing: he does not ‘shoot’ or ‘take’ photographs, preferring to think of his practice as a giving back, an offering. Such offerings are the result of arduous and excessively risky journeys to his chosen sites. Once there, he allows himself only one negative exposure with his nineteenth-century Agfa-Ansco view camera. The pictures are captioned in a way that has all the appearance of describing precisely what we are seeing, although they aren’t consistent: sometimes the temperature is given, sometimes not. Sometimes historical anecdote provides satisfies the need for an answer. Whilst the map coordinates might be precise – our experience of what we are looking at is not: sometimes we are told the direction of our gaze, sometimes not. Likewise, whilst we are informed that we are looking at an extreme, absolute point (e.g. northernmost) and years of preparation have gone into locating and arriving at this point, we don’t know where exactly in the image this northernmost point might be. The grip of the fixed coordinate – and of knowledge – loosens as we only see a ‘frame’, not a point. This aspect of his method creates a strong conceptual thread in Cooper’s work, asking vital questions of our drive to experience a pure moment, immanence and origin. I am suggesting that there might be something paradoxical and of value at work here which might be obscured by the way readings of Cooper’s work are largely framed by his own testimony. If the method has a conceptual dimension, there persists a tension between two ideas of site: one exact and quantifiable, the other ineffable and romantic. Do the photographs express paradoxes of the contemporary moment, technologically determined precision alienates the world; photographic romanticism holds onto the earth so as to see it again? I think so, though I worry the artist’s subjectivity can risk eroding the complexity: “I had the sense that there, the world rounded itself for me and I could see over the edge. God it was totally, completely thrilling.’
The exhibition currently on display in the Scottish National portrait Gallery comprises only 35 photographs from this titanic project of 32 years. It comes after a larger, more comprehensive exhibition of 65 large scale and 75 8×10 black and white photographs which was held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in Cooper’s birth state of California. It is somewhat disappointing that the exhibition is so small, given the significance of the work and the contribution Cooper has made to his adopted home, where he has occupied the founding chair of photography at the Glasgow School of Art since 1982. The vagaries of Covid and institutional politics aside, one wonders why the substantial estates of the National Galleries Scotland couldn’t provide a more generous set of spaces for these epic prints.
The exhibition includes a commission from Dundee based composer and instrumentalist Andrew Wasylyk (with string arrangements by Pete Harvey) of three original pieces of music written in response to Cooper’s photographs. The collaboration of composer and photographer included a trip to Inchcolm island. It would have been interesting find out more about the discussion; to have had more insight into the impetus for this journey. If the photographs are meant to be spatially and temporally unique, in what way did it help to journey to the Firth of Forth? In what way are these compositions ‘scores’, since the imagery exists as a series of still images, not film? A discussion would have made the addition of Wasylyk’s music in the exhibition more meaningful and less like an afterthought. While both composer and photographer have individually contributed significant work, more of an attempt to identify their points of contact and divergence as artists – working in different media – would have been important, since bringing the work together in this limited way risks banalising what is most powerful in each.
Cooper photographs places hitherto unseen, and those that will not be seen again due to rising sea levels. Michael Govan suggests in the LACMA exhibition catalogue that in this way they document ‘future loss’. Cooper’s work has thus been linked with the discourses of environmentalism and the anthropocene. While such claims put his work to good and urgent use, the photographs also resist such readings. Cooper is part of a long photographic tradition: the desire to document what is dying out, which begins in Scotland with Hill and Adamson’s photographs of the Newhaven fishing community in the 1840s. Cooper’s photographs are as much ‘about’ the current degraded state of our earth as Hill and Adamson’s photographs are about the hardship of working communities. Just as Hill and Adamson show the distinctiveness of human subjects, Cooper’s photographs always speak to the difference in nature that eludes us.
Thomas Joshua Cooper, ‘The World’s Edge – The Atlas of Emptiness and Extremity’, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 31 July -23 January 2022.