Water Mill

Thomas Joshua Cooper, Moonrise over Montauk—The North Atlantic Ocean, Montauk Point, “The End,” East Hampton Township, (South Fork) Suffolk County, Long Island, New York, 2016–2017, gelatin silver print, 30 × 40".

Thomas Joshua Cooper, Moonrise over Montauk—The North Atlantic Ocean, Montauk Point, “The End,” East Hampton Township, (South Fork) Suffolk County, Long Island, New York, 2016–2017, gelatin silver print, 30 × 40".

Thomas Joshua Cooper

Parrish Art Museum

Yes, a photograph is of some thing or some place. But what sort of relationship is covered by that little word of? Thomas Joshua Cooper’s work reminds us just how mysterious the link between a picture and its subject can be.

Cooper is exceedingly deliberate in choosing what to capture. His decisions involve painstaking historical research. A long-term project of his has been to make pictures along all the coastlines of the Atlantic Ocean. In pursuit of opportunities to do so, he has—as the Parrish Art Museum’s director, Terrie Sultan, explains in the catalogue for this exhibition, “Refuge”—“journeyed to the southernmost point of Africa, the edges of Antarctica, and the top of South America, moving about in conveyances including Soviet icebreakers, airplanes, helicopters, cars, trucks, and his own two feet.” All that tramping around, and with cumbersome equipment—a field camera built in 1898—has not been in the service of reportage, however. Cooper, an American long residing in Scotland, is an explorer of sorts, but not in the way of, say, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, a predecessor who undertook expeditions to find, among other things, potential routes for the coming American railroads. Cooper doesn’t aim to depict a particular location. His principle is to expose just a single negative at a given site; a cohesive body of work therefore develops only through extensive travel to a wide range of sites whose landscapes together become indistinct. A photograph of the sea taken from Point Ardnamurchan, the westernmost spot in mainland Great Britain—to cite a work of his in the collection of London’s Tate—is no more recognizably tied to that location than to the Hudson River seen from Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers, as pictured in a print (dated 2000/2018) in “Refuge.” Moving water is too complex a phenomenon to be twice the same. Each image thereof registers a unique confluence of light, matter, and vantage point. This specificity counters the effective anonymity of the depicted sites.

The core of this exhibition was a group of pictures shot in 2016 on the east end of Long Island, an area the artist had not previously visited. They quite literally represent a turn in his practice: While he had long been used to working with his back to the land, facing the water, here he focused on land—often dense, tangled, unkempt woods. As in his seascapes, a horizon line is rare; the whole frame tends to be equally eventful. What’s an event? When one looks this carefully, this deeply, an event can be almost anything—the light glancing off a branch or the shadow one branch throws on another—just as in his older pictures, one can find intrigue in the haze brooding over the surface of the deep or the ripples playing across it.

Cooper’s lens scouts the nondescript features of any historical place, so that, for example, on visiting the grounds of the Jackson Pollock–Lee Krasner house in the hamlet of Springs during this recent trip, he ended up with a picture not of the famous studio there but of a clump of fallen branches with a thicket in the background; sunlight is scarce. Yet, thanks to Cooper’s command of a seemingly infinite range of tonal nuances, the eye drifts as keenly into the distance as it hovers observantly over the foreground. All the intertwining linear elements might bring to mind Pollock’s knotted and loosening skeins of paint, but the more relevant connection between the artists’ works, and Krasner’s as well, might be less tangible, in their capacity to elicit an almost physiological expansiveness, a great slow breath.