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May 20, 2019 5:24 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

An Artist's Imagery Explores The History Of Region's Waterways

Thomas Joshua Cooper
May 21, 2019 10:01 AM

Waterways, as they exist today in this country, are often seen as pastoral places of recreation where we head to watch sunsets or enjoy boat rides. But in the not too distant past the aquatic byways served a much more practical purpose as the continent’s highways. Rivers, bays, inlets and streams were how Native Americans navigated their world, and when European settlers arrived on the East End in the 17th century, they had greater connection to Connecticut by sea than Manhattan by land.

The nature of waterways—and their ever-changing geography due to sea level rise—are strong themes in the work of Thomas Joshua Cooper, a self-described “expeditionary artist” whose photography merges exploration with picture-making. Now through July 28, the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill is offering “Thomas Joshua Cooper: Refuge,” the artist’s first solo exhibition in an American museum. On view are photographs made by Mr. Cooper from 1998 to 2018 along the Eastern Seaboard and the Hudson River. Included in the show are 21 images of seascapes and interior landscapes created on the East End during a 2016 exploratory commission sponsored by the Lannan Foundation with the Parrish Art Museum.

Mr. Cooper has spent decades documenting the waterways of the Atlantic basin in both the northern and southern hemispheres and from pole to pole. He has done it all with an 1898 AGFA field camera and in each location, captures only a single image.

“I learned on a small hand-held Leica,” explained Mr. Cooper in a recent interview in Sag Harbor. “On April Fools’ in 1969, I made a decision to only ever work outdoors and only make one picture in one site, and only ever make it with this hard and slow to use camera. By necessity and materials, I have to slow down.”

“It’s part of the discipline, which is important to me,” he added. “I’m of the belief that too many things are being made, people are inured to looking at things with respect or curiosity.”

Though he grew up in San Francisco, Mr. Cooper has lived in Glasgow, Scotland, for the last 30 years. His interest in photographing waterways stems from a desire to not only study colonial movement, but also reflect on the changing nature of them in today’s world—and he’s a big believer in learning from history.

“I’m an artist, not an activist, but I have the unconditional belief that without historical consciousness, malfunction can exist,” Mr. Cooper said. “We have to learn from history or die from it. Right now, I don’t know which way it’s going.”

“I’m the only artist in the world who has made art from both polar circles. I was with glaciologists whose purpose was to measure and estimate the effect of the loss of density of ice on the planetary spin of earth,” he added. “Within 25 years there will be no Greenland ice cap. Up to 37 percent of coastal areas will be under water in 50 years—that’s both London and New York.

“It could have been different.”

Time may, indeed, be running out when it comes to sea-level rise, but as an artist Mr. Cooper is in no hurry when it comes to creating his work. He adamantly rejects terms such as “taking a picture” or “snapping a photo” and instead refers to what he does as making a photograph. He has spent close to 15 hours making a single image and once waited five and a half days to discover the scene he wanted to capture—it happened in the Arctic and followed a three-week journey just to get to the location. But sometimes, it can happen much faster.

“All I’m interested in is the time it takes to see an event conclude itself or begin within itself,” he said. “I locate the edges of the pictures with certainty that the center will take care of itself.”

Equally important to Mr. Cooper is documenting the presence and traces of indigenous cultures wherever he travels to pursue his art. Because his father was half Cherokee, Mr. Cooper spent a good part of his youth growing up on a Sioux Indian reservation in the Dakotas.

“I looked like my mother so when we played cowboys and Indians, I was a cowboy because I was a white kid,” he said, adding that unlike most suburban versions of the game, on the reservation the Indians always defeated the cowboys.

“The lessons learned, and they were serious lessons, on how to be in the land, were tribal lessons from early life that never left me,” he said. “I have a lingering affinity and perhaps am a little over-gushing at times, that tribal people know the land differently than whoever came after.”

While working on the East End in 2016, Mr. Cooper spent time on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton where he made some of the images on view in the Parrish exhibition. Whenever he sets out to document a place, Mr. Cooper says that he does so without expectation, noting that the pleasure of being there is to find it anew and create a relationship without prejudice.

What he does do, however, is look up the history of a location, which is what he did prior to arriving on the East End to make his art.

“I’m a map reader and all my basic research begins with the atlas of the world,” Mr. Cooper said. “The names of places interest me. I was intrigued by Long Island in general and the Hamptons area, then Montauk, in very particular local maps. There was a map in a London map shop where it’s not only designated as Montauk, but ‘The End.’

“It was everything that seemed interesting to me about human and geographic movement, where the New World became new to Europeans—at the point of Long Island.”

As a collection, the 49 images on view at the Parrish document the outer waters that were once of vital importance to Native Americans. Mr. Cooper’s photographs are of sea trails along the Eastern Seaboard that traverse Cape Cod, encompass Rhode Island and lead to Long Island. He has also made photographs of the source of the Hudson River and the three Manhattan rivers that all lead to larger waterbodies—waterbodies that are now changing drastically due to human activity.

But when it comes to interpreting the messages contained within his work, Mr. Cooper leaves that up to his audiences.

“My pictures are entirely about human beings and maybe human nature without direct reference,” Mr. Cooper said. “I want it to be visually the same kind of abstract result of listening to music, or general sound. Things occur slowly, consecutively and cumulative, then become subject matter.”

“People find what they recognize in pictures … Maybe they’ll find emotional resonance they didn’t expect or have found by accident—or maybe it wasn’t there. I want to give viewers a chance to discover something.”

“Thomas Joshua Cooper: Refuge” is on view through July 28 at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated publication. On Friday, May 31, at 6 p.m., Southampton-based artist Jeremy Dennis will give a gallery talk on the exhibition. In his own work, which is also on view at the museum, Mr. Dennis, a member of the Shinnecock Nation, explores dreams and myths inspired by North American indigenous stories. For more information, visit parrishart.org or call 631-283-2118.

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