No other photographer comes closer to what I aspire than Thomas Joshua Cooper. It’s not the pictures per se, or his photographic expeditions or his success that motivates me. It’s something more intangible. The closest I can come to describing the feeling of his work is ‘spirit of place’, although this phrase doesn’t quite encapsulate everything that I feel in his pictures.
What I learn from Cooper is that to take pictures with deep meaning, it isn’t enough to see well or to know your way around technique. One also has to belong to someplace or something. The word ‘belong’ originally meant ‘properly relate to’, formed from the prefix ‘be- + longen from Old English langian – ‘to go along with.’ It is not a simple matter of ownership as current usage has it. It is more a case of abiding in the Old English sense of ‘remaining behind’. A sense of lingering. Something of ourselves is left behind in a spirit of place. ‘Remain in me, as I also remain in you’ (Bible: John 15:4) aptly sums it up. The relationship is motivated in both directions, place to person and person to place. Thus a bare location becomes a personal place.
Perhaps one has to experience this in order to understand it; and perhaps not everyone is capable of experiencing it. It is no romantic spiritualism I am talking about, but a real physical phenomenon.
There is a corollary to having a sense of place: suffering, either of the physical or the existential kind. A sense of place creates the possibility, nay inevitability, of loss. (We crave experiences in ways that make us crave them all the more. When we stop, we glimpse the world other than by mere presentation – Schopenhauer’s point 1 The arduous nature of Cooper’s photography is what gives rise to its meaningfulness 2.
As an adventurer-photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper lives the land and sea places of his pictures. The following video is worth watching.
As I prepare for what is likely to be an arduous time photographing the Welsh mountains this winter, sleeping rough to catch the dawn light and to find a sense of place, the example set by Thomas Joshua Cooper will sustain me.
- I am indebted to Gerry Badger’s essay on Cooper for triggering this thought. ↩
- We see this close association between suffering and meaning in other walks of life: sport, martial arts, writing – perhaps all worthwhile endeavors. There are no quick results. Any rewards from superficial work fade quickly. Perhaps this is why so much that is shared as photography through social media is so pointless. ↩