From the North Pole to Antarctica, American photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper has quite literally traveled to the edges of the world in the pursuit of art.
Born in California in 1946, from Cherokee and Jewish heritage, Cooper spent part of his childhood in places like the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota and a preserve in Wyoming, before the family came back to settle in California.
When Cooper enrolled at Humboldt State University, he intended to become a poet. However, an optative photography course changed his path. He would go on to obtain a graduate degree in Photography at the University of New Mexico. In 1982, he moved to Scotland when he was hired to start the Fine Art Photography Department at the Glasgow School of Art, where he continues to work today as Professor and Senior Researcher.
Suffering from a “complete technological bewilderment," as he says, Cooper prefers a more classic approach to photography. His tool of choice is an Agfa Ansco 5x7 View Camera, a wooden box built in 1898. Other materials he uses – developer, fixer, film – have become scarce or discontinued. “I try to work with the very best materials that I can, and use them carefully, and use them slowly,” he explains.
Drawn to the past not only when choosing his tools but also his subjects, Cooper has focused on photographing the remotest places on earth. “My whole practice is edges – edge of the world, edge of the picture, edge of land and sea,” he states. Inspired by the feats of ancient explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan and Sir Francis Drake, he is also quick to remind us how exploration gave way to violent colonization.
“My pictures were made in part to acknowledge the barbarity, unnecessary for most of the time, if not all of the time, but also to try and do something about it,” he remarks.
His most recent exhibition, The World’s Edge: The Atlas of Emptiness and Extremity, showcases a collection of black and white photographs, made over the course of thirty-two years, from the edges of the five continents that surround the Atlantic Ocean — North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Antarctica. “I thought maybe I could learn something by standing on the continental edges of the source of Western civilization and trying to imagine, with my back to the land, what happened when the carriers of the culture went over the edge of the map,” he explains.
Traveling to sometimes uncharted locations, Cooper managed to make a number of contributions to cartography, even having the privilege of naming islands and archipelagos. Unfortunately, he might be the last person able to see these places as the global sea levels continue to rise due to climate change.
“The reality is that every single cardinal point he has recorded over the last three decades will be underwater within 35 years due to the climate crisis,” says Anne Lyden, Chief Curator of Photography of the National Galleries of Scotland, echoing the urgency for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Climate Action.
The exhibition opened first in September 2019 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, then again in 2021 at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. Cooper makes one single exposure of each place he visits, adding to the uniqueness of his work.
“I’ve always believed that art, good art, is a balm to the human soul,” Cooper asserts. His work provides us with the joy and the privilege of witnessing beauty that has never been seen and that, unless we do something, might not ever be seen again.
Check out Thomas Joshua Cooper in conversation here, to learn more about his latest exhibition.