On April Fools Day 1969, Thomas Joshua Cooper made a conscious decision to slow down and cut back.
He had considered the world around him — moving at a pace too quick for his liking, tied to a conveyor belt of excess — and retreated to his 19th-century, big-plate camera. He trucked it into nature, set it on its tripod and leaned in.
There, viewed through the back of his 1898 Agfa Ansco, the world was flipped upside down and backward. “This is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen,” he recalled thinking to himself.
Even now, five decades later, that exact thought still crosses his mind while using the very same camera.
It is the only one he has ever owned.
“I don’t even know how to use a digital camera. I don’t have a computer or a cell phone. I’m a complete technical moron,” Cooper said with a laugh last week during a telephone interview from his home in Scotland. “I’m not a Luddite. It’s just that there are certain types of machines that I approach. I like manual automobiles. I like to know that when I shift the gear, the engine is responding according to whatever the gear is. It just feels like I am more a part of the process.”
In the dark room, he spends hours — even days — working on one picture at a time in total blackness, relying on his muscle memory to guide him. The hum of background music helps him concentrate and remain “semi-sane,” he said, as he meticulously hand-prints and tones his photographs.
He refuses to leave until he is finished, he said, his longest stay spanning an entire week. More recently, three of the 49 prints in his first American museum show, “Thomas Joshua Cooper: Refuge” — opening Sunday, May 5, at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill — cracked 15, 20 and 72 hours respectively, he said.
“It’s obviously a crazy person at work here, but when I get it, then I’m really happy,” he said. “I know that I’ve done for that picture, and that place, and my ability to interpret, the best that I am capable of doing. I don’t care about the time and I never care about the use of the materials. However long it takes, I’m there for that picture. When it finally becomes the picture I want it to be, then we’re done. And I will go to any length and take any amount of time necessary.”
Field camera in tow, Cooper’s photography has crossed continents and the Equator in both directions, from North and South Pole to the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. He gravitates toward extreme coastal positions, he said, seeking isolated edges of the world to make his images.
“As I say, ‘Locate the edges and the center will take care of itself.’ It’s just the aim of actually finding it. I think there’s a bit of an explorer in me,” he said. “I’m always lost — I never know where I am at any given time — but I’ve always driven to the end of every road I’ve ever lived near. And then used the end of that road to begin the radius or circumference of all roads that I could drive, just to finally begin to become acquainted.
“That is the primary issue for me,” he continued. “My moving to the edge of any place to get to it, I have to finally become acquainted by going through a place. That acquaintanceship is everything to me.”
Captivated by the East End from afar since 2009, Cooper finally arrived in May 2016 for a 10-day sojourn at the Parrish Art Museum. With Michael Pinto as his guide and driver, they immediately sought out Montauk Point — a place that deeply moved and overwhelmed him, he said, as did every location he visited to make the 49 images he calls “The Parrish Pictures.”
“Making the work for ‘Refuge’ was one of the privileges of my life, actually,” he said. “I waited so long to get to this area that I was excited before I came, and also really nervous, because failure looms large, of course, if you don’t concentrate well. I was just enthralled. I couldn’t believe there was so much diversity of land space, between the trees, the rocks, the sea, the interior, and that it was so accessible. I was grinning for damn near two weeks.”
Selecting sites that shared importance to both Native Americans and immigrants, Cooper also visited the Shinnecock Indian Nation, where he felt an immediate connection to his own Cherokee descent. Born in San Francisco, he grew up on Indian reservations across the western United States, from North Dakota and Wyoming to Montana and Utah.
“My father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and, in those days, we’d style me as a half-breed. I didn’t look like a lot of my Indian friends,” Cooper said. “We played Cowboys and Indians — it was a very serious game — and the Indians always won in those days. There were 50,000 little Indians and one cowboy, and I was always the cowboy. It was fantastic, a good way to grow up.”
His love of reading landed him at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, where he studied English, history and philosophy by day, and worked in the lumber mills by night. And in order to graduate, he needed to take an art class.
“I thought, ‘Oh Jesus, no chance,’” he said. “I’d heard of Picasso, but had no idea who Picasso was.”
Cooper stumbled across a photography course listed as a drawing class — a progressive stance that recognized the medium as an art form, he noted — and reluctantly enrolled.
And against all odds, he fell in love.
“Mind you, I was an unmitigated failure to begin with,” he said. “I’d studied literary forum and philosophical forum and historical forum, and I thought, being a slightly arrogant student kid, ‘Oh I have some idea of these things.’
“Then, I was hit with visual forum and I had no idea —zero, zero, zero, zero, zero — what the hell the professor was talking about,” he continued. “I managed to fail the first two projects and then I thought, ‘This is actually pretty interesting. It’s so hard that I don’t know how to do it.’ And that trapped me right there.”
Today, Cooper is regarded among the top contemporary landscape photographers in the world. In 1982, he founded the Fine Art Photography Department at the Glasgow School of Art, the first of its kind in Europe — “I haven’t been fired yet,” he said. “It’s a goddamn miracle” — and jumps at every opportunity sent his way.
“It’s been a turn of really unbelievable bits of good luck and accident — and I’m eager to do damn-near anything,” he said. “I’ve never understood people who say ‘no’ to things. So I got these strange opportunities and couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do more than try to do them. And that’s how I approach work: Let me try and make something. And I’m a fanatic about it. I like making things. I like making unique things.”
But no matter where he goes, he takes just one photo at each location, staying true to the promise he made 50 years ago — one that feels ever more timely and relevant, he said.
“One of anything is enough. Any more than that is excessive and unnecessary, and it seems also, particularly in my case, disrespectful to the land itself,” he said. “I want to spend the time with the land space and the land place, get to know it as I am able — or not able, as cases sometimes occur — and make the picture when it seems right. And one is enough. One is enough.One is always enough.”
The 5-inch-by-7-inch Agfa Ansco lends itself to his mission. In 1965, he bought the camera from the 70-year-old son of the original owner — “I’m now two years older than the old boy I bought it from,” Cooper said — first admiring it for a couple years before teaching himself to use it for a couple more.
“It makes everything slow down so I can see and try to better understand the world around me. And I’m also really awkward — physically awkward — so I’m slow as hell anyway, just because everything is awkward for me,” he said. “We became, this strange little 19th-century machine and I, partners. And we haven’t parted company yet.”
“Thomas Joshua Cooper: Refuge,” will open on Sunday, May 5, at the Parrish Art Museum, located at 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill. The show will remain on view through July 28. For more information, call (631) 283-2118 or visit parrishart.org.