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Seeking refuge in photographing the East End

Photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper's prints are on display

Photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper's prints are on display in the exhibit "Refuge: Images Made on the East End" at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill. Credit: Michael Pinto

Of the 49 gelatin silver prints comprising “Thomas Joshua Cooper: Refuge,” nearly half feature views — at once distinct and not — of the local coastal landscape, from North Sea to Shelter Island, the Shinnecock Canal to the grounds of the Herzog & de Meuron-designed museum. Created during an expedition of the region in the tradition of early landscape photographers like Carleton Watkins and Edward Weston, they belong to a sequence of images of the Eastern Seaboard the California-born, Glasgow-based Cooper has been creating over the last two decades. Taken together, they are also part of the nomadic artist’s epic “Atlas” project, transportive photographs of resonant and often hard-to-reach spots across the world, especially near its edges, from southernmost Africa to the tip of Antarctica.

“I was instantly entranced,” says Parrish director Terrie Sultan of her initial encounter with Cooper’s work some 20 years ago at a Manhattan gallery. Realizing that the photographer’s extensive travels had not yet included eastern Long Island, Sultan partnered with the Lannan Foundation and commissioned Cooper to embark on a 10-day exploration of the historically and aesthetically rich coastal landscape

“I never presume to know a place until I set foot in it,” he says, explaining that his interest is not in documenting the location but in what he describes as “the quality of the experience.” Noting the limited vocabulary of the outdoors (trees, water, rocks), Cooper focuses on the tonal and gestural effects of particular conditions (the light, the wind, the dampness) that exist at the moment he captures his shot. “The ‘objectness’ is reduced,” he says. To that end, Cooper typically eliminates the horizon from his landscapes so to disorient viewers and coax them to look inward. “There are no people in the pictures, but they are entirely peopled with emotions and thoughts,” he says.

“There is indeed an abstract nature to his work,” agrees Sultan. “All of the identity markers disappear. They can be any place or every place.” The time-specific titles the photographer assigns his images work to counteract their timeless quality, infusing them with both personal and historic meaning. “I made a conscious decision to be purposeful, to slow the process of looking and seeing,” says Cooper.

While the photographer admits his gravitas often spills over to the pictures themselves, he contends the images he made on Long Island are more lighthearted. “There’s a sense of well-being,” he says. “It feels good to be here.”


WHAT “Thomas Joshua Cooper: Refuge”

WHEN | WHERE 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m. Saturday-Monday and Wednesday-Thursday, through July 28, Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Hwy., Water Mill

INFO $12, $9 seniors, free students and ages 17 and younger; 631-283-2118,

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