Thomas Joshua Cooper

A profile of the legendary photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper.

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 It’s a couple of days after the fire at the Glasgow School of Art when I first meet Thomas Joshua Cooper.  Down on Sauchiehall Street people stop and look up Garnet Street, searching for the Mac’s familiar shape and seeing instead derelict window frames and the blackening imprints of flames on the brickwork.  Cooper’s studio on Renfrew Street is a block along from the Mac, and to get there I have to skirt a cordon still pungent with the scent of smoking wood.  On the doorstep, Thomas’s wife Kate Mooney is waiting with a mop and a bucket.  She’s been cleaning off clots of soot and the after-effects of pissed spectators.  

            Upstairs, I expect Thomas to be preoccupied with the fire and its after-effects.  This place is part of him, after all; he founded its Fine Art Photography Department – the first of its kind in the world – he’s taught here for over three decades, and even if he only uses the actual Mac building for exhibitions, it’s still a kind of home. He may be one of the greatest of our living photographers and he may have wandered from the North Pole to the South in search of pictures, but all those wanderings have ultimately brought him back to this same street and these same rooms. 

            But when I get there, Thomas isn’t fussed by any of it. In fact, he doesn’t mention the fire once.  What’s really bothering him, what’s sending his stress levels through the roof, is that somehow overnight the proofs of the Scattered Waters pictures have been misplaced.  He was going to show them to me but somehow overnight they’ve disappeared.  This offends him on all sorts of levels.  Partly because, in the unimaginable event that they’re really lost that’s who knows how many years’ work to be redone.  Partly because it makes him seem disorganised, and he’s not disorganised.  His life and work outside this studio might be operatic both in scale and in drama, but life inside is scrupulously controlled.  And above all because he wanted to show them to me and not to do so seems rude.  And Thomas, I very quickly learn, is never rude. He has an old-fashioned, almost Southern sense of courtesy, and an absolute instinct for the placing of things. 

            Anyway, the proofs can’t be found, so until they reappear we sit and talk.  This in itself takes a fair amount of rearrangement.  There are three chairs in his office, but those chairs sit somewhere beneath 30 years of work.  Since he spends more time here than he does at home, every corner of it is completely inhabited.  The space is packed from floor to ceiling with materials – books shelved first vertically and then horizontally, old photos, school shots of his two daughters, Agfa photo-paper boxes used as a storage system, a shelf containing a cushion on which his 1898 camera sits shrouded by a black cloth, an electric heater, a filing cabinet, a phone, and a desk almost invisible below the weight of books. 

            Thomas, Kate and I shuffle penguin-style into his office and squeeze ourselves between the narrow paper canyons in search of a seat.  Kate sits at the end of the room, I am facing a well-used pile of maritime books and Thomas ends up sitting directly under the doorjamb, half in and half out of the room.  When he gets up to show me some of his other work, we all reverse out again in date order. 

            Out in the hallway are pinned a whole series of maps and contacts of all the photos he’s made for each project, brightly categorised with flourescent tabs.  In the room where he keeps the prints themselves, there are a further series of storage boxes on which are written the names of projects (Settlement, Sea / Land / Rocks / Tree / Grasses,  Away From Home), and an old map of the Americas on which the entire Atlantic seaboard has been ringed with pebbly red circles of felt tip from Cape Farewell to the End of the World.  The top and bottom of the map run out before the red rings do. 

            That map alone reveals an exceptional travelling. Cooper groups all his projects according to size and duration, so there are small (a short, concentrated work like Shoshone Falls), medium (the Scattered Waters project), and completely deranged.  The Atlas project is Thomas’s attempt to circumnavigate the entire Atlantic Basin, all five continents, Pole to Pole, Old World to New.  So far, it’s taken 24 years.   Occasionally there’s a pause – other work, lack of funding – but then once again he gathers himself and resumes.   With the help of a recent grant from the Guggenheim Foundation,* he’s just returned from a three week trip to ?* to complete another corner of the project.  Why?  “Curiosity,’ he says instantly. ‘I’m interested in edges, and these were the most extreme physical edges that there are.  And what happens when an edge has been reached but the desire to find something else hasn’t been stopped by the edge.  Ideas can be halted, but they usually can’t be stopped.  I wanted to see if I could stand on all of the extremities surrounding the Atlantic Basin and what it would be like to imagine more, further.’

            If Thomas were one of those sprightly TV explorer types with muscles and a camcorder and a genuine relish for camping or cold or humping huge quantities of heavy equipment over hostile terrain, perhaps all of this would make more sense.  But he’s not.  Instead he’s tall and shortsighted and wears himself like something he just hauled out of the laundry basket. 

            By his own admission he finds the physical world so troubling that he regularly gets lost at home in Glasgow:

            ‘Fuck!  It’s a disaster.  I never know where I am. In fact, one of the pictures I’ll be showing is called Lost in North-East Scotland.  I know it was on the Findhorn, but I have no idea where I was.’ 

             The reach of his imagination extends far beyond this world – ‘There are pictures of the Sea of Tranquility (on the Moon) that I really truly need to do’ – but the gravity of time, money and physical wear-and-tear keeps bearing down on him.   He’s nearly 70, and he keeps breaking things.

            And yet almost by accident, Cooper has gone further, seen more, than almost anyone else.  In addition to being the best of our landscape photographers, he has also become one of our great explorers. 


BB:       What’s it going to be like when the Scattered Waters project ends?  

Kate:    Thomas will think of something new.  He’ll have added three more rivers, he’ll have made the day longer, he’ll have postponed the show, the book will be bigger, the frames will cost more – everything will be more than he originally agreed to.  And he’ll then say, ‘Oh, but I haven’t really finished it.’ 

TJC:     No, I’m done with the Scottish rivers.  Once we get this book done, then we’re done.  But I’ve committed a bunch of pictures on the Rio Grande …

Kate:  If you offer Thomas breakfast, he’d say yes, that would be nice.  And you’d say, do you want porridge?  Do you want bacon?  Do you want eggs?  And he’d say, yes, I’ll have everything.  And that’s exactly the same as making the pictures – yes, he’ll have everything. 

TJC:  So, your point? 


            The difficulties involved in reaching some of the most inaccessible, inhospitable or politically sensitive parts of the globe are only amplified by Cooper’s working methodology.  A long time ago, having made the decision to be a photographer, he made a series of vows. 

            One, he would only photograph landscape. 

            Two, he would use only black & white film.

             Three, he would use only one camera and one lens – an 1898 large-plate camera.  

            And four, in each place, he would only ever make one exposure.  One picture, one chance. 

            All those vows were made on April Fool’s Day 1969, and he’s kept to them ever since.  So devotedly that he has never made a single image of anything else, not even of his two daughters either at their birth or as they have grown up.  It was Kate who took all the family pictures. 

            Conforming to those renunciations makes his working life as pure as a Jesuit.  So to reach some of the places in True, his 2008 work on the Poles, took almost three years of forward planning, paperwork and permissions, the chartering of a special ice-strengthened boat, the collaboration of a team of assistants, and – for the South alone – 93 days away.  When he reached Prime Head at the very topmost point of the Antarctic Peninsula, a place so often blocked by ice that only ten people have ever stood there, he made just four exposures.  ‘After 45 years, I know what I want when I see it, and I’m really good at seeing what I want, because I only make one thing of what I do.  That’s it, every time.’ 

            We talk about the pictures he made of Corrievreckan, the strange, almost supernatural whirlpool between the west coast islands of Jura and Scarba. 


BB:       How did you get to the right spot?

Kate:    The only way to get there is to walk there.  And Thomas isn’t a particularly good traverser of objects. 

TJC:     My camera weighs probably about five kilos.  And the tripod weighs about 25 kilos.  And then the film can is about seven kilos. 

BB:       So if you’re travelling alone …?

TJC:     I have the tripod on my back, the camera in my left hand always and the film box in my right.  So if I need a hand free, I tuck the film box against my body with the left hand and use my right for climbing over heather and rocks.  It was awful trying to get there with all my shit, being a human camel. 

Kate:    That was not the problem.  

TJC:     What was the problem? 

Kate:    The problem was the box of wine.  

TJC:     (laughing sheepishly)

Kate:    They went out with someone called Julie Brook who was living in one of the caves on Jura, and Thomas went with Graham Murray. They went for a weekend and Graham brought supplies.  The first night was a disaster because they both snored so she had to sleep further away, and the second night she found she’d been carrying wine the whole time …  

TJC:     It wasn’t me, I promise you!  

Kate:    … And the third night she got so pissed off she moved into a B&B. 

BB:       There are simpler ways of taking pictures.

TJC:     No there aren’t.  This is the simplest way possible.  OK, maybe there are simpler ways of taking pictures, but there are no simpler ways of making them.  Mine is the simplest, most basic way of making a picture that still exists photographically.  There are simpler places to make them in, but there’s no simpler process.  This is, you know, this is basic techology, big plate camera on a tripod, dark cloth, one snap, and that’s it.


            The point of course is not the travelling, but the places he brings back when he gets there.  In almost all his images there are just two elements: water and sky, or earth and water.   After all that time he has acquired the skill to make that water look like myth and horizons cross the line between one dimension and another. He has a lifetime’s knack of being able to walk up to a patch of land or water, and to name it.   His water – even normal domesticated water like the Water of Leith – smokes and twines, rises like mist or slides open to the deep.  There are mackerel wavelets and Nessie humps, roaring buoys and smoking hazes.  Water can hiss or sussurate, cleave or overwhelm, meet the great continents quietly or boil them away.  It can slide back for a second to reveal what’s beneath or close right over, as finished as skin.  By timing those single exposures perfectly, he reveals the pathways in a sea or makes it blacker than galaxies.   These aren’t photographs of rivers or land, they’re paintings with a camera of the states between one World and another.   Look at the prints – especially the medium-sized or large ones – and it’s impossible not to fall in.

            It would be nice to think it’s an ancestral skill.  Cooper was born in the US, the eldest son of a Jewish mother whose first language was Mandarin Chinese and a mixed-race Cherokee Indian then in the US Navy.  ‘He was born Indian, and died white,’ Cooper says now. In other words, his father might have fought for his country but he was never really acknowledged as part of it.  Despite an exemplary war record, the discrimination against Native Americans was then so extreme that the family ended up away from the centres of population.  When the family were right out in nowhere, his father began teaching Thomas and his two siblings about plants, and about land, and about how to recognise things.  Above all, he taught him how to notice. 

            Thomas’s mother died suddenly when Thomas was sixteen, leaving his father to look after his brother and sister. 

            ‘He never complained about what he had to do.  Never once.  I was pretty proud of my old man.’  Thomas got himself to college in California and was mentored as a post-grad by the godfather of American landscape, Ansel Adams.   But Cooper never really liked Adams’ sublime technical sterility.  As far as he’s concerned, he’s not a landscape photographer, he’s someone who makes pictures outdoors.  What he liked was the messier, freer work of landscape artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton.  And so, when the Glasgow School of Art offered him a position, Cooper came to Britain and stayed. 

            Or rather, came to Britain and then went away again.  Overall, Thomas must have spent years in the air or at sea or bumping along unmarked tracks in unnoted corners of the globe.  Which is funny in itself, because he doesn’t much like boats or the sea – ‘my preferred mode of travel is helicopter.’ 

            The sea is cold and difficult to traverse; it’s not what he belongs to or where he wants to be.  But maybe it’s exactly that friction which makes him so good at describing it, and so at getting it to describe something about us.  

            It also means that Thomas has amassed a truly world-class collection of traveller’s tales.  There are ones about camping in polar bear territory in Greenland, of seeing a saint’s possible Paradise on the Gulf of St Lawrence, making pictures on Russian nuclear icebreakers and being piloted by a nine-year-old boy using celestial navigation and butterflies, of being so long at sea in the Antarctic that they ran out of food and water, of falling into sinkholes on the Trail of Tears and of almost drowning down a quicksand on the Rio Grande.  In fact, quite a lot of his stories involve near-death experiences.  This last trip he fell ten foot off a cliff, dislocated his knee, broke a couple of ribs and had to be medivacced out.  Even getting through airport security is fraught.  High levels of radiation either damage or wipe film negatives.  In the past, airline x-rays weren’t as penetrating as they are now, and besides, staff were used to photographers carrying film through as hand-baggage.  Now, with increased security paranoia, levels of radiation are turned up high enough to nuke Moscow. 


BB:       (Pointing to the three stacked black heavy-duty plastic boxes lined with foam and containing slots for each neg slide) Do you get a lot of hassle?

TJC:     Oh fuck!  It’s just unbelievable.  I have to go before the airport opens and then try and negotiate, because they often want to pull the slides, so I have a blank one – this is what the holder looks like, this is what the film looks like, this is what’s there, don’t x-ray them individually.  It’s just one monster hassle. 

Kate:    In combination with being American, which means you’re not welcome most places anyway.

TJC:     I was beaten in trying to cross by land the Columbian – Venezuelan border.  I carry baby powder for skin weirdness, so I had sealed Johnson’s baby powder.  The guard sees me trying to cross with a bunch of baby powder, sweating like a dog.  He looks at this: cocaine, baby powder, cocaine, baby powder.  Fuck, man!  So he takes his knife and he chops the top off and dips it in and has a giant snort.  And of course it’s baby powder.  And he starts choking. 

BB:       (laughing)

TJC:     And that’s exactly the instinct – I grinned a little.  And he absolutely cold caught me – bap! Hit me as hard as he could.  Knocked me down, took all my shit and dumped it all out, and then kicked me back across the border. 


            Though he knows the stories fascinate people,  Cooper doesn’t want to trade in anecdotage.  And while every one of his pictures is always captioned precisely, the details of where a picture was made, and how, and when, and all the mishaps and serendipities which put him there at that exact point at that exact moment are both incredibly important and totally irrelevant.  ‘The stories are potentially more interesting than the pictures, but they’re autobiographical in a way that I’m not interested in.  My work is being a picture-maker.  And the stories are what happens when you try and work.  So last time I broke my ribs and whacked my knee, but they fixed my knee so I could continue to work.  And no matter what, I don’t let anything get in the way of the work.’


* * *


            Those missing proofs turned up the following day – they’d been taken away by his assistant for safekeeping and the month or so since, Cooper has been working on the images for the Ingleby exhibition.  There’s still space, he thinks, for a couple more pictures of the Tweed or the Annan Water, but Kate and the girls are away on a trip up to Durness.  Before she leaves Kate sends me an email suggesting I drive.  Thomas has offered to, ‘but I would not accept if I were you. He can’t see.’ 

            So, on a fresh Sunday in early July, I pick Thomas up from outside the studio and head down the road towards Kelso.  He’s been awake for 41 hours straight, printing.  With most film photographers, this would mean they’d come tottering out coked on chemistry and reeking of fix.  But Thomas’s darkroom is an altogether more wholesome experience.  Every time he makes a print, he cleans the space for an hour beforehand and an hour afterwards.  It’s the only darkroom I’ve been in which doesn’t smell.  Instead, what dominates the room is his vast collection of CDs – blues, African, jazz, country, everything from Leonard Cohen to Afro Cubism. 

            So does every photograph have its own music? 

            ‘It’s funny that you should say that – each print has its own music.  And I work in total darkness so I can see better, if that makes sense.  So I find something that I can that has a move to it that I can wiggle my hands to while I’m dodging and burning, repetitively, over and over, so it becomes a muscle memory.’ 

            When he gets to the end of the CD he presses the repeat button and listens to it all over again. A medium-sized print takes him eight hours and a big one takes twelve hours, non-stop.  When he moves onto another print, he chooses a different album. 

            ‘And then there’s certain music I always do the toning and washing very late at night to.  I need loud rhythm to keep my concentration up with the toning, because if I miss, I overtone it and then I’ve ruined everything.’ 

            Like all photographers who maintain an analogue practice, Thomas is finding it harder and harder to get hold of materials.  Agfa, who made the paper he likes, went bust in 2006, so Thomas and a couple of other photographers bought up all the remaining stock.  It’s enough to last for maybe six or seven years, and once that runs out, that’s it – ‘I’m done.  I’m done.  I’ll quit.’ 

            He uses two toners: selenium, which gives a deep rich red-brown tint, and gold chloride, which is a faint purply-blue.  Selenium has been banned in the EU as a carcinogen and gold chloride – well, it’s gold, so it’s expensive.  And his standards are ruthless.  Though he’ll make between eight and twelve prints of each individual image, he’ll discard three-quarters of them.  Everything, always, has been done in editions of four – three to sell, one for Kate. 

            None of this would have been possible without her.  It is Kate who, despite her own work as an artist and silversmith, acts as intermediary between Thomas and the world.  They met because he knocked her sideways.  Literally.  One day in the late eighties, he was hurrying across the street near the School of Art, preoccupied with whatever it was he was thinking about, and collided with her so hard she fell over.   He helped her up, apologising. 

            ‘And then I looked at her,’ he says, ‘And thunderbolt.  Really.  Just a thunderbolt.’ 

            By that stage, he was in his late forties and had just assumed he’d remain single.  A few weeks later he held a barbecue for a group of students, and Kate was there.  She stayed to help him clear up, and somehow they started seeing each other.  Every week for five years, he asked her to marry him.  She always said no.  No reason, just ‘no.’  After five years, he stopped asking, and she said yes.  They got married on the summer solstice in 1993.

            In Kelso, there’s a biker’s convention in front of Floors Castle.  We go scouting at the base of the bridge, looking for the point at which the Teviot joins the Tweed.  After an hour or so, we’ve wandered around the town but found nothing more inspirational than a caravan park and a burn full of traffic cones.  So we get back in the car and drive north. 

            As we drive through Stobo, it starts to rain.  Not normal rain, but huge punching drops, smashing into the metal, turning the view from benign summer pastoral to shining waterworld.  Rain is sluicing down the roads, pooling in the dips, the deluge too sudden and too severe to allow it time to drain away. 

            As we turn up the little hillside road to Dreva, it changes from rain to hail, tiny little white stones coming down so hard on the windscreen I wonder if it might actually break.   Ahead of us, the road foams.  And in the passenger seat, Thomas is overjoyed.  He’s clapping and high-fiving, peering down the hillside to where the Tweed – which until a couple of minutes ago was meandering along doing its placid thing under a placid sky – is now rousing and swelling into something completely other. 

            It takes us a few further watery minutes before we find the perfect spot.  By the time we’ve transported Thomas’s kit down the bank, the rain has stopped.  But in the place where two waters join, there’s a change.  The water from the smaller stream is thickening with mud and sediment while the water from the Tweed is still flowing clear.  Thomas fits the camera up on the tripod, disappears under the dark cloth, makes several adjustments and presses the cable release. One chance, one exposure.  Before he packs up again he takes a note of the place, the aperture and the exposure length and then shows me the view through the back of the camera; upside-down trees, the reflection of the sky in the water, the dark and the light at the exact point where the rivers meet.  It will be a little picture, he says, with a lot of silver. 

            There’s still time for one more, so we drive back down the road to the bridge over the Tweed at Dawyk.  This time, it’s instant.  I look over the bridge and I see water, a few mossy rocks, the scrubby green detail on the river banks, the ripples left by birds or fishes or wind.  Thomas looks over the bridge and he recognises something.  All of a sudden, just like during the hailstorm, he’s lit up, on fire, filled with that fierce creative avarice.   For an instant, everything he needs and wants is there, and all he has to do is put out his hand to catch it.  Since the access here is pretty easy, the camera is all set up and ready within five minutes. 

            Afterwards, we pack his kit back into the boot and turn the car round away from the river, heading back to Glasgow. 

            ‘Fuck!’ he says happily, as we drive away. ‘It’s a picture!’
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