Book Review: Refuge
There are photographs, and there are Photographs. The photograph presents the world, more or less as it is. The image recognizes the subject(s) and understands, uncomplicated and direct. And then there are Photographs. The Photograph at once invites and intimidates. You can identify its components but second-guess yourself as to the meaning. There’s always something. Something that eludes, confuses, draws you in for more. The difference between a photograph and a Photograph is the difference between a wave and a surge about to break on the shore. One prescribes; the other invites. Thomas Joshua Cooper’s new book Refuge is a book of Photographs.
Opening with an essay reflecting on the nature of the Pilgrims’ journey from England to Plymouth, you see the shores of the New World as they would have. Free yet forbidding, inviting yet imposing. Though these new lands offered refuge, they also harbored challenges beyond imagination. The flora and fauna resembled closely enough that of the country they’d left behind, offering some comfort. In fact, stepping into Cooper’s lens, you can find elements of your home on every page. From mountains to deserts, from grasslands to seasides, Cooper captures the blurs and boundaries that bind the world together.
The essays that preface the photographs provide an illuminating context for the circumstances of their birth. Driven by his singular vision for drawing nature out of the darkroom and into the light, Cooper offers the reader a complete picture beyond the pictures themselves. Regarding his philosophy of photography, he offers, “If we are sighted, we tend not to notice the differentiated acts of looking and seeing. The given is that looking and seeing are central, but distinct to the process of picture-making.” There couldn’t be a better thesis by which to understand the metrics driving this collection. Cooper’s great talent lies in drawing the beauty out of the common. To a casual observer who has seen hundreds of waves crash over various shores and enough trees to last a lifetime, nature photography might seem a redundancy. Cooper’s eye for extracting the vibrant from the everyday provides a compelling argument to the contrary.
Consider Moonrise over Montauk, the first photograph of the collection. Despite playing the titular role, the moon’s presence is swallowed up in the vastness of the meeting of sea and sky. The titanic grays of the deep meld with the somber cumulous above in a perfect harmony, one predating humankind’s ability to capture it on film. Further down, Riffles on the Hudson turns to the relationship between water and land. A quivering river, bisected by stones, weathered by years of its neighbor’s embrace, reveals just how jagged water can be. Soon, it’s the plants’ turn. Thinking of Monet evokes the delicate balance of stability and motion. Ever forward marches the river, yet its green botany remains cheerful as ever to stay in place. Survival is everything.
As you continue to wade through the marshes, forests, and seascapes that Cooper has chosen to bring to your lap, you’ll find yourself pulling your jacket tighter. It’s a beautiful world out there, but it’s also a cold one. As you skip one last stone before packing up and going home, you’ll finally understand Refuge. It’s not about what’s out there, it’s about what’s inside.