Fall 2009


To the Edge and Back

Guggenheim Recipient Documents Extreme Places

Thomas Joshua Cooper (‘69), a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, traveled to the Arctic Circle to take “Looking towards the Old Lands.”

If Lloyd’s of London, the British company that famously insured Betty Grable’s legs for $250,000, won’t touch your boat because your journey has been deemed too insanely dangerous, then you know you’re in for tough times.

For Thomas Joshua Cooper, his photography work means accepting those risks and pushing forward to document some of the world’s most unforgiving locations along the Atlantic basin. Whether he travels through forests or deserts, getting to coastal waters is always difficult, none as much as his three-month journey to Antarctica’s Prime Head.

“The weather was astonishingly un-forgiving and also lethally dangerous. We got there and brought back a wonderful set of pictures, and when we finally got back to safety at one of the island research stations one of the scientists asks where we’ve been. We tell him and the guy laughs and says, ‘Can you prove it?’ My captain was deeply offended; there were four of us on that boat for three months at sea, and in that kind of weather it was like being in solitary confinement. We showed him the chart path and the guy says you do realize that more people have stood on the face of the moon than have stood on Prime Head Point. It’s that hard to get to.”
For Cooper the work became a lesson in the brutal reality of Earth’s most extreme places.

“It’s been an education in humility for me. I thought foolishly that since they’re so easy to see in big atlases, it just seemed so simple. It was just astonishingly difficult but also deeply rewarding.”

Cooper (’69 Art, Secondary Education) has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his Atlantic basin project, which takes the photographer to the “beginnings of civilization” surrounding the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to being incredibly hard to get to, the locations Cooper visits offer him first-hand affirmation of the effects of climate change.

“The great idea of the permanence of the north is changing in our time,” says Cooper. “Despite everyone’s opinion about it, I’ve been in places that verify that the Earth is changing and we made it do that.”

During his time at Humboldt State Cooper studied under Professor Thomas Knight, who founded the fine art photography program at HSU in the 1950s. Cooper credits Knight, along with all the faculty in the Art Department, with helping him develop his personal aesthetic.

“The early and founding members of HSU’s extraordinary Art Department were all wonderful, exceptional and inspirational teachers to me. The professors were profound in their positive effect in bringing both the requirements for the craft and the purpose of an artist fully and clearly into my youthful and not very experienced life at the time,” says Cooper.