Thomas Joshua Cooper takes an anachronistic approach to photography. In our digital-or-die age, this internationally celebrated photographer uses late 19th-century methods and tools, starting with his wooden field camera, made in 1898. Into this camera he loads specially made photographic plates, employing long exposure times, not to mention patience, stillness, and passion for the craft of picture-making. He then hand-develops his negatives into the lush black-and-white prints for which he is known, exquisitely toned with layers of selenium and silver. Unsurprisingly, Cooper once claimed: “I hate the words ‘snap,’ ‘shoot’ and ‘take’ when it comes to making photographs. Everything I do is very seriously built up. They are ‘made’ pictures.”
A selection of the artist’s “made pictures” is currently on view at Scotland’s Ingleby Gallery, in “Thomas Joshua Cooper: Scattered Waters, Sources Streams Rivers,” an exhibition that brings to mind words like “sumptuous,” “slow,” “pristine,” and “perfect.” Though Cooper travels to the ends of the earth to find the edge-of-landscape locations seen in most of his pictures, for these works he ranged over Scotland, his adopted home, setting up his camera on the banks of the many waterways that define both its topography and identity. Between teaching and traveling, Cooper has been photographing Scotland’s network of rivers and streams for the past 32 years. He sees no end in sight for this project, which the gallery characterizes as his “love letter” to the country.
If only all love letters could be crafted so eloquently. His photographs of the surfaces of these water channels—in the early morning or at dusk, still or running rapidly—are intricately detailed and varied. It’s as if he caressed rather than captured them with his camera. He photographs the relationship of the water to the land, too, in pictures of a river tumbling through its rocky, forested surroundings or sliding languidly past the side of a monumental gorge. Sometimes, the artist’s beloved rivers and streams are implied by their surroundings, including a patch of delicately flowering wild garlic—the bounty of a land deeply etched by water.
“Thomas Joshua Cooper: Scattered Waters, Sources Streams Rivers” is on view at Ingleby Gallery October 11–November 29, 2014.