“There are no birds, bugs or animals on the Polar Ice Shelf. Nothing you can see. Just the wind and the sound of ice cracking.”—Thomas Joshua Cooper
Thomas Joshua Cooper has spent the last 20-plus years traversing the Atlantic Basin to “make his pictures.” His “atlas” project began in 1989 as a means of creating a photographic dialogue between the old world and the new. From his home in Scotland to the southern-most point of the African continent, to the edges of Antarctica and up to the top of South America, Cooper has chartered boats, planes, helicopters, and even rode a nuclear powered icebreaker to document important geographical and historical points. Cooper may be the first person ever to reach all of the extremities of the Atlantic Basin and may certainly be the last as up to 35 percent of the sites he has visited will no longer exist in 15 years due to rising sea levels.
In 2007, he ventured to the North Pole, where he took images of pure whiteness, wanting to “convey the experience of cold and white while removing any objects or points of reference.” Cooper traditionally eliminates the horizon from his camera frame as he wants to “remove ease and create an interior space” for the viewer. Later he spent 90 days on a 50-foot boat in the Antarctic visiting both known and unknown places on the map, along the way discovering an uncharted island that he subsequently was able to name after his wife, Catherine. And, while stationed on land at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, he worked in negative 41 degrees with a wind chill of 77 below to make his image The Polar Plateau: The South Pole, Antarctica, 2007-2008, 90°. Despite being equipped with special film for below freezing temperatures, Cooper’s photo bears witness to the extreme weather conditions by way of a random black jagged line where the negative cracked.
Since he began his career on April Fool’s Day in 1969, Cooper has used just one camera, an 1898 wooden field camera, that can be alternatively perilous to carry along high sea cliffs or a life saver, as when he was trapped in quicksand. From the start, he promised himself to only take pictures outdoors and to only make one exposure per photograph.
Born in San Francisco in 1946, he studied art, philosophy, and literature at Humboldt State University before completing his Masters of Art in Photography at the University of New Mexico in 1972. His first solo show was held in 1971, and since then, he has been the subject of over 95 solo exhibitions throughout the world. Cooper’s work has also been included in over 80 group exhibitions. Thomas Joshua Cooper has received numerous awards including a Photography Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1978) and, most recently, a John Simon Guggenheim Award (2009). In 2010, Cooper was the first recipient of the Lannan Visual Arts Award.
Cooper’s photographs can be found in over 50 public collections worldwide, including The Art Institute of Chicago; The J. Paul Getty Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth; Nimes Museum of Contemporary Art, France; The Polaroid Collection, Frankfurt; Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey; The Tate Gallery, London; and The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Lannan Foundation holds the single largest collection of Thomas Cooper’s work. Cooper is the founding head of photography at the Glasgow School of Art.
Recently, Cooper has had exhibitions at PaceWildenstein, New York (solo) (2006-2007); Unosunove Arte Contemporanea, Rome, Italy (solo)(2007); Museo de Arte Contemporanea de Vigo, Spain (2008); the Rubicon Gallery, Dublin, Ireland (2008-2009); the Travelling Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland (2008-2009); Haunch of Venison, UK (solo)(2009); the Lillie Art Gallery, Milngavie, Scotland (2009); GMG Gallery, Moscow, Russia (2009); Bafa Foto, Geneva, Switzerland (2009); the Lannan Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico (solo)(2009); the Glasgow School of Art (solo) (2011) and the Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland (solo)(2014).
The Lannan Foundation made a grant to Radius Books in support of Cooper’s book, Thomas Joshua Cooper: Shoshone Falls and also to the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in 2012 in support of the presentation of Cooper’s Shoshone Falls photographs.