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Thomas Joshua Cooper: At The World’s Edge

The air is fraught with freezing cold, the landscape desolate in American photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper’s Settling Freezing Fog, The Artic Ocean, Sea Ice, Sastrugi and Melt Lakes, The North Pole 90°N, 2007-2008. Despite the harsh weather conditions, there is a sense of tranquillity in lands untouched by human development.  Cooper’s works prompt deeper questions about the relationship between humanity and the world around us, namely “How far can we go?”

Thomas Joshua North! The First Landing Site, Afternoon Drifting Fog, the Spring Equinoctial Ice Flow, 1998
Credits: Image Courtesy of the National Gallery of Scotland

Cooper was initially inspired to circumnavigate the globe after he arrived in Glasgow. As of today, he has just 1500 miles left around the Atlantic before his 70,000-mile journey around the ocean will be complete. Even though he does not swim, he often wades into the water to take a single shot (he only allows himself to take a single exposure per site), saying that, ‘It’s important to me that people, when looking at my images, can understand that I stood in those places, I looked out from those edges, and that where I stood, they, you or any of us, could also stand and look if they wanted to.’ His characteristic shots, devoid of any animals or people, but simply raw nature itself, transport the viewer in the picture, and I find that Cooper is inviting us to reflect on the past while still looking forward into the future. 

A fascinating piece, Looking towards Antarctica and Dreaming – Drake Passage, Cabo de Hornos/Cape Hora, #1, Isla Hornos, Islas Hermite, Antárctica Chilena, Chile, very near the South-Most Point of All South America, 2006, captures a rare moment in time when the tidal movements form an arrow, which Cooper sees as a good omen. Cooper’s works continuously redefine the linearity and directionality of time and the consequences that come with it. As Cooper says: ‘The pictures indicate the world is alive now, that means we are too, for all the sadness, for all the horrors, [we] can’t take back the past, but… we can do better.’ 

The Mid North Atlantic Ocean, Punta de la Calera, the West-Most Point the Isle of La Gomera, the Canary Islands, Spain, 2002 wraps up the exhibition, foreshadowing a journey ahead of us. In this scene, we can hear the waves crashing against the rocks. The air is humid, as suggested by the smoky white air settling above the sea, and in each breath, hints of salt enter our noses. Time is not linear in the sense that while we are in the present, we are also part of the past, standing where Christopher Columbus once stood, his last glimpse of the ‘Old World’ before he set out for the ‘New World’. We also hold the key to the future as we realise that due to the climate crisis, this view will not be the same in thirty-five years, and we are on our respective journeys towards the ‘New World’, for better or for worse. 

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Thomas Joshua Cooper | The World’s Edge is on display until 23 January 2022. For more information, visit https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/thomas-joshua-cooper-worlds-edge

[Image: Cooper, Thomas Joshua North! The First Landing Site, Afternoon Drifting Fog, the Spring Equinoctial Ice Flow, 1998
Credits: Image Courtesy of the National Gallery of Scotland]