Nick Hackworth

Exhibition : Thomas Joshua Cooper

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Sometimes the true complexity of an artist’s practice is only hinted at in the exhibited work.

To the casual viewer, the black-and-white photographs of Thomas Joshua Cooper, though beautiful, might appear to be straightforward studies of wild, natural landscapes and seascapes. The images are mostly of sections of the British coastline, made from cliff tops and coastal outcrops of rock, along with a number of images of rivers and forests. Underscoring the pictures, however, there is both a peculiar technical process and a narrative of high sophistication and ambition. Such qualities befit, perhaps, the work of a man who set up the Photography Fine Art course at Glasgow School of Art, the only photographic course in the country that defines itself as a purely “fine art” course.

The landscape genre is often associated with notions of time, change and memory. Those associations lie at the bottom of Cooper’s work too, but are deeper and more precisely articulated than is usual. The moving water in all the images, be it the waves of the sea or a flowing river, is a hazy blur, revealing Cooper’s use of time-lapse photography. The length of his exposures vary in time from a few seconds to over an hour. Moreover, the images are made with a camera more than 100 years old and take the archaic physical form of gelatin silver prints. The work’s technical relationship with time is mirrored by its subject matter. The photographs are all made at points of either geographical or historical interest.

One series, for example, consists of images made of the locations of the Cinque Ports, the sites of sea defence built along the Kent coast in the 14th century to guard against the French. Also, most of the geographical extremities of the British Isles, such as its most northerly or westerly points, are recorded here.

The true heart of Cooper’s work, however, beats in a series called Archipelago, situated in the downstairs space at Blains. The seven images are a collective elegy for the Celtic diaspora and tap into a vein of epic romanticism that stretches from the seventh century Welsh poem Y Goddodin, through the Celtic myth cycle The Mabinogion, to corrupted contemporary New Age sensibilities. But these images, with their dark seas and tall inhuman cliffs, are a world away from New Age clichés, serene studies of land and sea, and of the people that once passed through them.

Until 3 August. Info: 020 7935 3414