Looking Back

Thomas Joshua Cooper

September 1, 2019

We asked Thomas Joshua Cooper to tell us about a picture that means something to him, and why. Thomas Joshua Cooper: The World’s Edge is on view at LACMA from September 22 to February 2, 2020. 

Remembering My Father’s Tribal Grandparents…, is one of the most personal pictures I have made. I made it in an attempt to locate the homestead grounds of my Cherokee father’s tribal grandparents in the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma. My father described it to me as a “home-place” when, in 1953, we were living on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which bridges North and South Dakota. The name “Little Blue,” of the Little Blue River, which passes through the region, stuck in my memory. While on a field trip in New Mexico in 2003, I impulsively made a 2,000-mile round trip to northeast Oklahoma to try to find the Little Blue. My search took a week. This is how I work. Everything is in question; I am almost always lost as a result.

Remembering…, is a pilgrimage picture. I “make” pictures; I never “take” them. An idea or a feeling of place calls me, and I try to respond to that particular place. The story of Remembering… for me, is intense, solitary, and breathtaking in the power of its silent particularity. The place is “empty,” but highly charged. The off-center, dark tree trunk, the parallel bit of bright, afternoon light that falls onto its leaves, and their reflections in the still stream water of the Little Blue splits the picture into unequal halves, creating an apprehensive pictorial tension. All the motion of the picture is drawn into the center and stills itself around the tree and its opposing vertical reflections. The precise edges of the picture gather and hold the reverberating stillness of the composition together.

Without a traditional horizonal figure-ground location point within this enclosed pictorial space, it becomes an interior – the inside of the outside. It presents a real place, in real time, but does not identify it. Rather, this picture aims simply to recognize and indicate the discovery of the reality of these shimmering existences. This picture is special to me because it is more than I could imagine.