'Refuge' at Parrish Offers Paean and Disruption

A new photography show in Water Mill
Thomas Joshua Cooper photos of the Hudson River Valley, left, and Montauk Point, right

How does an artist reconcile the traditions of early landscape photographers with the imperatives of contemporary art? In the case of Thomas Joshua Cooper, he uses the best of both to invent something that is both paean and disruption.

In an exhibition titled “Refuge” opening at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill on Sunday, his work will demonstrate how a photographer can express the nature and essence of a place without specifically identifying it visually. To do this, Mr. Cooper approaches his projects as expeditions, treating the Atlantic Seaboard the way photographers such as Timothy H. O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins treated the American West in their explorations. 

He researches the history of a region before he immerses himself there over several days, spending time at a specific site before ever closing the shutter on an image in his 1898 Agfa field camera. He uses only one large-format negative to record a location and then makes his own 30-by-40-inch selenium-toned gelatin silver prints.

Although the photographer has ranged all along the East Coast in his 50-year career, he had never been to the East End until 2016, when he was commissioned by the Lannan Foundation along with the Parrish to explore the area’s waterways and interior. Those 21 images form the spine of the show, joined by other images he made between 1998 and 2018, including depictions of the Hudson River Valley, Boston and Cape Cod, and other locales.

While the meaning Mr. Cooper finds is often expressed visually by a generic wave or unidentifiable feature of the landscape, for his titles he makes great effort in using a site’s description. “ ‘The Cut’ at the North Atlantic Ocean, Flying Point Beach, Water Mill, Southampton Township (South Fork), Suffolk County, Long Island, New York” is one such title, and for all that specificity, a viewer might expect more than a generic sandbar. Yet the moody gray depiction serves up a pleasing tonality along with its postmodern irony. 

His site selections typically result from a place’s history as it moved from Native American occupation through successive waves of immigrants, as the Parrish’s executive director, Terrie Sultan, noted. “Each has been a significant socio-economic driver for trade, manufacture, and shipping, and has nurtured nascent artist communities in the 19th and 20th centuries.” It’s a relationship between history and ecology that “holds great personal significance as a visual and emotional continuum of his sense of place in the world,” according to Ms. Sultan.

 A fully illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition, which will remain on view through July 28.

Mr. Cooper uses an 1898 Agfa field camera to create one large-format negative per subject, which he then prints into 30-by-40-inch images. Above, he set up a shot at the Parrish Art Museum. Michael Pinto