LOS ANGELES — In 1790, Immanuel Kant wrote in Critique of Judgment that the “boundless ocean in a state of tumult,” when viewed from a secure vantage point, “gives us the courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.” Although Kant acknowledged that any pleasure derived from the oceanic sublime issued from the physical threat of being subsumed and the terror it provoked, he ultimately argued that mastery over nature was the inevitable outcome.
By contrast, photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper luxuriates in the terrors of surrendering to the elements. Cooper’s expeditionary photographs retrace early sea voyages, cautioning that the human impulse to master the world’s edge often results not in dominion, but rather in an annihilation of the self. His meditations on psychological and even corporeal dissolution take on new potency in a West Coast context, and can be observed in a pair of exhibitions currently on view in Los Angeles: Thomas Joshua Cooper: The World’s Edge at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Thomas Joshua Cooper: The Capes of California at Hauser & Wirth. Both presentations prompt viewers to consider the ways that individuals and institutions have interacted with California’s natural habitats, from the state’s initial colonization to contemporary efforts to control nature’s many threats, including droughts, earthquakes, and wildfires.
For much of his life, Cooper has feverishly circumnavigated the globe in an effort to chart the Atlantic basin via the five continents that surround it. Titled The Atlas of Emptiness and Extremity (1989–2019), this 30-year project brought him to a series of perilous locales — and led to several near-death experiences — as he retraced the colonial routes of figures like Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan. After weeks of navigation, he exposes a single 5-by-7 negative using a wooden view camera manufactured in 1898, then departs.
The resulting large-format photographs, such as “Furthest North” (2003), visualize the limits of exploration. Made at the extreme edges of continents, they depict sites where the intrepid traveler is confronted by the ocean’s abyss and can go no further. Framed to exclude horizon lines and foregrounds, images like “Fleeing from a Force Eight Gale” (2006) ensnare the viewer within nature, while refusing to offer stable footing. Although aerial perspectives typically connote imperial authority, here the effect is vertiginous.
Unlike his colonial predecessors, Cooper displays a respect for nature and deference toward tribal sovereignty (evidenced by his refusal to trespass on Indigenous lands). His paternal ancestors were members of the Cherokee Nation and he grew up on reservations as a result of his father’s employment by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Drowned Trees along the Mississippi” (2010) reflects this personal history, showing the site where the Cherokee people departed from their homeland as they were forced westward along the Trail of Tears. Several other photographs, such as “Looking toward The New World” (2005), depict sites of colonial destruction and cultural erasure. With his evocative and detailed titles, Cooper supplies a historical complexity that distinguishes his work from the more picturesque landscapes of his mentor, Ansel Adams.
As a coda to his Atlas, the San Francisco-born Cooper returned to California with the aim of making a photograph in each of its 19 counties. Capes of California (2018-19) is rendered all the more poignant in light of wildfires that recently devastated regions throughout Northern and Southern California — as many as 16 in October. With the Trump administration attempting to open one million acres of California land for oil drilling — and with fossil fuel emissions contributing to the rising air temperatures that facilitate increasingly intense and unmanageable blazes — the problem is likely to worsen each year.
Adopting a preservationist mentality, Cooper memorializes coastlines likely to be affected by rising sea levels, wildfires, and drilling. He is keenly attentive to the impact of humans on the land and environment. For instance, “Looking into the Sun” (2018-19) hints at the empty symbolism of a border wall that pretends to supersede nature but ends abruptly as soon as it meets the sea — as well as the hubris of those commissioning it.
Viewing Cooper’s California photographs against his larger expeditionary project compels us to consider how the state’s colonial past — its oppression of Indigenous populations, natural resource exploitation, and rapid industrialization — precipitated current struggles with climate change, immigration, homelessness, and racial inequality. If Cooper’s sublime photographs proffer a tentative solution, it is perhaps a way of existing in nature that finds pleasure not in consuming, but in being subsumed.
Thomas Joshua Cooper: The World’s Edge continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, California) through February 2. Thomas Joshua Cooper: The Capes of California continues at Hauser & Wirth (901 E. 3rd Street, Los Angeles, California) through January 19.