From Eye of the Water, 2005. Image © Thomas Joshua Cooper.
Old dictionaries use the words “Ultima Thule” to describe the furthest reaches of knowledge, at the “ultimate boundary”. These are the places at the edges of ancient maps, filled with white space and embroidered with drawings and cryptic runes with the legends, “Here be Dragons”, “Terra Incognita” or “Uncharted Dangers”, spelling out that which was unknowable at the time. They represent the very fringes of human comprehension, regions that have driven us to “boldly go where no man has gone before”.
Thomas Joshua Cooper, picture-maker and professor of photography at the Glasgow School of Art, is one such extremist. His epic work, An Atlas of Emptiness and Extremity, is a circumnavigation of the secret inner heart of the Western World.
Visions from the continents and islands bordering the Atlantic Ocean between the poles, it is a seemingly infinite project, a great Borgesian Atlas that seeks to fill in the blanks to record every known extremitude. It is Cooper’s photographic Great White Whale – a chase, a photographic quest towards the insurmountable, the ineffable and the all but unrepresentable.
Unlike those brave voyagers from Star Trek, Cooper’s mission hasn’t taken a mere five years. It’s an odyssey of more than two decades, a journey into the heart of photography and the meaning of making pictures in the wilds. Cooper doesn’t find the word “landscape” useful. Instead he uses a phrase referring to that which is outside the home, “outdoors”, implying he is exploring the edges of his personal knowledge.
Standing on promontories jutting out to the Atlantic, he photographs places that border the unknowable. Pressing against the interface of the known and the unknown, he pushes out to the very end of groundedness, the edge of continents, to make his pictures.
Cooper goes to the extremes, and once there makes just a single photograph with an archaic 5×7 camera dating back to 1898. He could easily be labelled obsessive or fanatical – it takes a certain obsession to sail for 80 days to Prime Head in Antarctica to stand on the northeastern-most tip of the most southerly continent, make one picture then sail back again. Few embark on similar journeys to islands on the edges of Africa, Tierra del Fuego and the North Pole with such singular aims. But “extremist” is the best description, because it presumes pushing against boundaries, the boundaries of photo-
graphy, art, human experience and of what it means to make pictures under these circumstances.
For him, landscape photography is a false concept, and his work has little to do with traditional notions of the genre. Despite his roots in California and the American West, and his reverence for the likes of Ansel Adams and Timothy O’Sullivan (the first great photographer of the newly conquered American West), Cooper’s work is more akin to concept art than the Romantic Sublime of Caspar David Friedrich. There is a righteousness and majesty in the work of painters such as Mark Rothko, Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin that can also be seen in Cooper’s, urging him forward to the limits of what is representable.
Cooper’s photographs are from the edges of the land, staring out onto the far horizon into the never-never at the edge of perception, but they say something about the language and understanding of landscape photography. His images are, literally, singular – he takes one picture at a specific place, which he names and dates. His work is also extremely literal and literary, whether he is
re-tracing Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition or Leif Ericsson’s adventures across the True North, from Greenland to Iceland to the edges of North America. Cooper’s starting points are the ultimate references to place and language – God may have made the world but Geradus Mercator mapped it, and The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World is its New Testament.
Some of the locations might be recognisable, but they’re not about time and place per se. They encompass some space in the frame of his carefully positioned camera, depicting a world without horizon or fixedness. They are devoid of content as normally understood in landscape photography; there are no half-domes or moonrises here. There is often only a swirl of fog, a slosh of ice, or a fall of rocks, and it seems they could be anywhere or nowhere. Like a landslide or a rising tide, Cooper’s
images gather their force by momentum, not as single isolated images, reaching out to the void, whether literally in the dark of the polar night or figuratively in the blinding white of the icy-
fingered dawn summer solstices at 90° north and south.
One-quarter Cherokee, Cooper was born in San Francisco and once met a Lakota elder at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, who said: “Each of us has an eye that sees and a seeing eye.” For Cooper, with severely limited vision in one eye from birth, this was something of a prophecy.
As a young student he knew some of America’s finest photographers, including Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Beaumont Newhall, and artists such as Morris Graves, whose garden he once tended, and the late Charis Wilson
Weston, whose daughter he once dated. From them he learned to see and to seek out his own roads. His studies in Arcata in California, and later in Albuquerque in New Mexico, exposed him to the great tradition of photographers of the American West, and the discovery of the camera he has used exclusively for the past 30-odd years.
A graduate school photography project in a canyon near San Luis Obispo in California using the antique camera led to the beginning of his photographic journey. Hiking to the apocryphally named See Canyon he failed to find a picture worth
making, but turning around to hike back towards Avila Beach, he did – perhaps emulating Adams’s mantra “if you do not see what is before you,
remember to turn around”. Thus inspired, he started to follow in the footsteps of Timothy O’Sullivan, who carted his plate camera up and down the hills of the West in the 1880s to make single images.
In 1976 a bursary led him to Britain, where he started a project photographing the edges of the British Isles. He is now the head of photography at the Glasgow School of Art, and has been for many years. Thus this one-eyed photographer with his seeing box set on a three-legged tripod started to emulate the navigators and cartographers of history – Magellan, Drake, Franklin – and circumnavigate the geographical fringes of the Western world, the lands that border on the Atlantic. Like the great mapmakers he has named places in Antarctica, such as his landing point at Prime Head, where “fewer men have stood than on the surface of the Moon”. And his images, compiled in several bodies of work including Point of No Return, Ojo de Agua, and True, trace the physical edges of this ocean.
Edge of darkness
Cultural exchange across the Atlantic shaped the modern world, and the Western world was shaped through Magellan’s voyages, Mercator’s maps and Gutenberg’s printing. Cooper is exploring the outer edges, the places that proved the points of departure. They are also the points of no return, and especially with his polar work, the white voids slowly filled by the accumulation of knowledge. Photography has become a source of knowledge and experience, filling what Cooper has called the “un-edgible edges” of our existence.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “weird climes that lieth sublime” are at the heart of Cooper’s passion. He steps up to the edge and peers in, taking one image on his ancient camera and moving on in his lengthy Atlas of Emptiness and Extremity – a title that also harkens back to Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Poe might also have chronicled Cooper’s voyage to Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire, aboard the Northanger, the 50-foot vessel that also landed him on Prime Head. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe’s only completed novel, depicts a similar sea voyage though “cataracts of fog” into lands marked, uncannily, “Shaded”, “White” and “Region to the South”. These are the spaces that fuel Cooper’s spirit and drive him, literally, to the ends of the earth.
At land’s end, in the rush of wind and wave, Cooper somehow manages to find stillness in the extreme and freeze it on one frame. He says he has two more years to go before his project is completed, and what he will find along the edges of North America, his native continent, remains to be seen. Cooper has set himself the unenviable task of completing his voyage at the first point of contact for European explorers, a land in which everyone now fancies himself a photographer. He wants to complete his Borgesian Atlas and fill in the remaining blanks. One can only wish him luck.
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