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Thomas Joshua Cooper in Washington

27 February, 2010

Friday afternoon I met up with Thomas Joshua Cooper over vanilla pudding at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Thomas makes large-format landscape photographs exclusively in black and white, and never makes pictures of people. His deep, rich, abstract, purplish prints are instantly recognizable to those who know his work. He is represented in Europe by Haunch of Venison gallery, and in New York by Pace Wildenstein. He has many ardent fans, including me.

For a number of years now, Thomas has been working on what he calls the Atlantic Basin Project. His aim is to circumnavigate and photograph the Atlantic coast from North and South America to Africa, Europe, Antarctica, and Greenland. He has made incredible progress, and he’s not done yet. He recently finished photographing the north and south poles. His photography often deals with extremes of geography, such as the farthest compass point of a continent or land mass, or the place where two oceans meet. He is especially attracted to locations with historical charge, such as the place where explorers departed or arrived from a voyage. He has been traveling a little less lately, in order to dedicate himself to printing more of his work and teaching at the Glasgow School of Art, where he’s now back in the classroom full time.

Thomas has one work in SAAM’s show, ‘Framing the West’ — an absolutely stunning picture of Shoshonee Falls, inspired by Timothy O’Sullivan, the show’s main attraction. Deeply mindful of the photographers who came before him, Thomas often makes photographs in hommage to 19th-century photographers. O’Sullivan is a particular favorite – over the years he has made a number of pictures with the shared title ‘Message for Timothy O’Sullivan,’ so it was especially appropriate that he be included.

I was fortunate to meet Thomas around fifteen years ago, and he has been something of a mentor to me in my career. It is always inspiring to talk to him, and I’m not sure I’d still be in the field if it weren’t for his clear-headed encouragement. He’s one of those people who has the ability to explain why artists and curators do what they do and why it matters, putting things in perspective with such ease you wonder why you never thought of it yourself. On Friday he told me that he thinks photography is more than just a medium. Some people who work with paints are ‘photographers’ he says – sculptures, computer programmers, folk artists too. To him, photography is a state of mind.

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