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Cooper's The World's Edge

I like to go to Los Angeles in the wintertime. Even when the days are short, the weather is usually mild, and there are plenty of ways to while away the days and nights. Perfect for a tourist like me.

While in Los Angeles earlier this year, my wife and I went to see The World's Edge, an exhibit of photographs by Thomas Joshua Cooper at LACMA. The exhibit has since closed, but information on the exhibit remains available at this link. The exhibit showed prints from Cooper's project documenting the edges of the Atlantic Ocean, from the North Pole to the South Pole, and everywhere in between. Based on how the prints were dated, Cooper has worked on this project since the 1980s, and it wasn't clear to me that he has finished it.

The exhibit was massive, containing well over a hundred silver prints, and many of these prints were quite large. To accommodate this exhibit, the gallery was made up, as I recall, of several large rooms.

Cooper's images are elegant and have a timeless quality about them. What I mean is that it is impossible to tell whether these images of rocky beaches and flowing water were taken in 2020 or 1920. In general, his images are fairly abstract, which again makes it difficult to age Cooper's work based on what it's in the frame. Given that he uses a late nineteenth century view camera, it's possible to imagine that somebody actually did take these pictures a hundred years ago even if it seems unlikely that somebody could have undertaken all this travel a hundred years ago. This sense of timelessness is reinforced by the fact that his subject matter is elemental--rocks and water.

Two of Cooper's images take this timelessness even further--he took extremely long exposures at the north and south poles of the earth. In one, the exposure was taken during the extremely long day of the summer while the other was taken when there was essentially no daylight in the winter. Pure white and pure black. These colors are the building blocks of black-and-white photography and speak to a minimalist aesthetic.

The compositions may be timeless, but contemporary issues animate Cooper's photographs. For one, each photograph in the exhibit is tagged with an exact latitude and longitude. These tags point to the satellites and internet infrastructure that weren't facets of life until quite recently. More importantly, the focus on the poles and the changing coastline demonstrates Cooper's environmental awareness. Because Cooper is documenting where the ocean meets the land at a certain time and date, his photographs gesture at all the changes that are occurring to this coastline. In that sense, his pictures provide a chance to reflect on Nature with a capital N. After all, these images look at the place where the land and the sea diverge. This theme comes straight out of genesis and ensures that Cooper's photographs are not just art for art's sake.

Cooper's images succeed, in my opinion, because they are elegant abstracts animated by a concern for the environment. They record portions of the border between land and sea in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century and ask the viewer to consider how that border is shifting. In a hundred years, perhaps somebody will take Cooper's view camera to the same GPS coordinates and find nothing but ocean. Where will the land have gone? And what pictures could that person take there?

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