Cooper - Shots Magazine Interview
July 14, 2007 London
about your past and your boyhood, what do you recall about it that may
have pointed you in the direction of becoming a designer and artist?
Wow…where do I begin? The home that I grew up in was not an artistic home,
though I was very much an artistic child. My father is a dentist. My two
older brothers are dentists. Both grandfathers were dentists, as well
as my father's eldest brother. But I was one of those fortunate few who
never had to struggle to figure out what they wanted to be and I knew
early on that it certainly wasn't going to be the family business! "It"
picked me. By that, I mean fashion. I always knew that I would live in
New York City and be a fashion designer. By the time I was 9 or 10 years
old, I was designing complete collections. My life seemed quite pre-destined
and to this day, I'm doing pretty much what I set out to do from those
am also a great believer in mentors. My grandmother lived next door to
us. She was a woman truly born before her time. She graduated from Pratt
Institute in 1922, in what was called "fashion construction"
at the time, the precursor to fashion design. She was the one who taught
me to draft patterns. She bought me my first sewing machine and most of
all, she was the one to teach me that the human body is a 3 dimensional
form. She truly changed my life.
I was 14, I was given special permission to attend the college-level summer
program to study fashion at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in
New York City. During that summer I met other young people who were thinking
just like me. There is something universal about youth and talent. We
were all on the same wavelength; all doing and exploring the same ideas
met a woman that summer who would also change my life. Her name was Marie
Essex, and she taught fashion illustration at the school, and taught everyone
from Donna Karan to Marc Jacobs. She was the only one who really knew
how old I was and she took me under her wing like I was her own. I went
back home to South Carolina a focused and changed person with my eyes
set on returning to Parsons to study fashion when I graduated from high
came first, your interest in fashion or photography? How did each emerge
as a significant means of expression?
Fashion definitely came first. But looking back, photography was always
around me. My father had a beautiful leather trimmed Contax camera that
he bought when he was stationed in Japan in the 1950s that I used quite
a lot. He was very generous in that way. I could shoot as much film as
I liked. Also, a funny story… my older brothers and I had the weekly responsibility
of cleaning my father's office every night. I loved the weeks that I got
to clean the reception room because it brought me in contact with wonderful
magazines like LIFE and National Geographic. I would say much of my visual
language was established in that reception room! It also brought me an
awareness of how other people lived in different parts of the world, with
different customs and I was very curious about that. Those magazines were
definitely learning tools and a travel machine for me. Even today, I read
about 30-40 magazines a month. It is an addiction I am very proud of.
How did the two disciplines eventually "overlap"?
Great question. Between my mother and my grandmother I had access to all
the fashion magazines going back to the 40s. Fashion magazines were an
extension to yet another world. I have always been visually literate and
I looked at photographers like Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, George Hurrell,
and George Hoyningen-Huene. They were the style-makers that defined modern
fashion photography. But at the time I was actually looking at the clothes
they photographed, not the photographs for themselves. It took me some
time to put the two together. That happened much later. But from the beginning
though, I was really fascinated with beautiful things. It's the Virgo
in me. That drive eventually led me to become a clothing designer.
photography, I was a late bloomer, though when I look back, it was always
a part of my life. I'm completely self-taught. In the beginning, around
1990, I wanted to create a photographic project about women, by women.
I would just server as "producer" of the project, and guide
an all female team to execute a particular concept I had. I looped my
wife Karen into the project and over the course of 6-8 months, we interviewed
models, photographers and writers to be part of the team and frankly,
I was having a difficult time connecting with the photographers we were
meeting. I was showing them tear sheets I pulled to give them the flavor
of what I was looking for; you know, for the "feeling." I felt
the need to communicate the idea to them in a more succinct way so I decided
to ask our best friend if she was willing to be my guinea pig and shoot
a series of nude Polaroids to be used as visual references with the photographers
we were interviewing in order to be able to say… "this is what I'm
looking for, this is what I need." Our friend Jane was extremely
agreeable and we worked for a solid 2 months developing the visual concepts
for that project. When Karen started looking at the instant images, she
said in all of her wisdom, "why don't you just shoot the project
yourself?" That project was never realized, but it gave me just the
right push of confidence to explore figurative photography is a much more
serious way. Up until that moment, I had never considered doing fine art
photography as an artistic expression, but making images seemed to be
a natural progression. I knew how to frame a shot, so it was just the
technical aspects of photography that I needed to learn.
complete irony of this is that I feel my voice as a photographer is stronger
because I have no commercial constraints placed on me like that of the
fashion world. In photography, I make the kinds of images that I want.
If someone enjoys my work and wants to further their relationship with
a piece by purchasing it, that's wonderful, but selling is not the driving
force behind my work. It really is about personal expression and the journey
than anything else. On the flip side, my clothes must sell. Otherwise,
what's the point? So it's easy for me to say that photography is the thing
that makes my life right. It's the thing that gets me out of the bed everyday.
It's my drug of choice. I am, however, extremely thankful that fashion
is in my life because it affords me the privilege to be able to make the
types of images I want to make with no strings of commerce attached. As
a matter of fact, I run my studio OrchisArts at "net-zero,"
meaning that once everything has been paid for (model fees, printing,
etc.) I donate all the net proceeds to Breast Cancer organizations like
Casting for Recovery, which is a not for profit group that teaches breast
cancer survivors the art of fly fishing as part of their physical and
mental recovery. It's one of the parts of my life that I'm most proud
has being a fashion designer taught you that you've applied in your photography?
Conversely, how has photography informed your fashion design? Are there
practices specific to each discipline that you've brought to the other?
The short answer would be having the discipline to be creative on command.
It's the number one tool that I bring over from fashion because regrettably,
I'm not able to shoot everyday. Sometimes not every month. So when I book
a model, I have to have incredible discipline to harness the most from
that session because the next session may not be in the immediate future.
In fashion, there isn't the concept or allowance for "writer's block."
Other artistic disciplines allow the artist not to produce a body of work
for years. As a designer, I don't have that luxury. I must conceptualize
and create 4 major collections a year. So to answer your question in one
word, it would be discipline. Fashion gives me an incredible sense of
discipline that I can apply to all facets of my life, including my photography.
story, and kinda related…when I was a freshman at Parsons in the early
eighties, my group of friends were illustration majors, not fashion majors.
These guys were a talented group who conceptualized and drew beautifully.
They were also incredible musicians. When their drawing presented a problem,
they worked thorough the drawing on their bass or drums. And conversely,
when they encountered a snag in creating music, they worked through the
music through their drawing. These guys were multi-talented. What I learned
from them is that all creative energy is the same. Whether you're making
an incredible drawing, an amazing musical arrangement, composing a photograph
or designing a coat, the thought process is exactly the same. It comes
from the same core. It is interrelated.
Your largest body of work appears to be "The Altis". How did
that project come about and what was your approach to it?
That's right Russell. To date The Altis is my largest body of work. That
project had an interesting beginning. The Altis didn't exactly start off
as "The Altis." It originally started off as an ode to a dear
friend of mine that I grew up with in South Carolina. She is one of my
oldest friends. We've known one another since kindergarten! It was to
be an in-depth exploration of nudes and portraits. She lived in Boston
while Karen and I were in New York so we were only able to work on the
series a few times a year. Karen, in all of her brilliance looked at the
images about a year into it and mentioned to me that the project had a
very Olympian spirit to it that could expand into something larger. Ding,
the light bulb turned on and I started doing research into the ancient
Olympic games and in particular, women's role in ancient sport. During
the course of a year or so, I interviewed historians and anthropologists
to understand what the games were really about. What I learned was that
women's participation was almost non-existent. Women were banned from
participating in the ancient games, "a crime punishable by death."
I felt that just based on gender alone, it doesn't mean that one can't
excel in athletics, or anything else in life for that matter, so I made
the choice to cast the project with an all female cast as a reflection
of social and sexual equality in our living times.
I understand that your Altis work inspired a
ballet. How did this come about, and what was your role in the process?
Also, did seeing your work presented in the context of performance/dance
in turn offer any personal insights to the photographic work it was based
In 2002, I was having an exhibition at the Media Gallery in Boston. Oddly
enough, I was introduced to this gallerist through my same childhood friend
that inspired The Altis. When we met, the gallerist said you should meet
my friend Rebecca Rice. I said, "who's Rebecca Rice?" He said,
"she's a choreographer for the Boston Ballet. I think you guys would
like each other." Rebecca and I met and just fell in love. She really
understood The Altis, and shortly thereafter approached me to collaborate
on creating a ballet directly based on my series. It was one of the most
fulfilling experiences I've ever had. Rebecca choreographed the piece,
I designed the costumes and Martin Case composed the original score. In
many ways it was a culmination of all of my life's experiences, and completed
the circle. It allowed me to use my skills as a designer in my work in
a way that up until that point were kept very separate. The work literally
lifted itself from the photographs and came to life on stage. The images
were projected 4- stories high and used as the backdrop to the dance work.
the games were performed in the nude, so that posed an interesting challenge
for me to create a language of costumes and interchangeable elements that
would seamlessly work back into the language of The Altis. At the time
there were no "costumes" in the series per se, just props here
and there. I wanted the look to have a definite nod to antiquity, but
to also have a very functional appearance so there's a lot of leather,
canvas, cotton webbing, D-rings and gear. Making the costumes was so much
fun that I kept making them well after The Altis was completed. The costumes
have become artifacts to this body of work, and we continued to video
the fittings and make studio reels, little 5-minute video installations,
of the model standing on a box in her white leotard with me draping the
costumes directly on body. Some of them are published on my website. To
date, I've costumed 4 ballets: 2 with Rebecca and 2 with Kevin O'Day (Pittsburgh
Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago).
You've said you treat working with models as
a collaborative act. Can you explain your approach in this regard?
Yes, for me collaboration is the thing that makes art modern today. I
love the collaborative process. I love finding models that understand
my visual language and want to help me build upon it. I have a very instinctual
thing about casting models. It's my job to figure out why they have found
themselves in my studio and what are they looking to get out of the relationship.
I spend a tremendous amount of time weeding out the curious from the committed.
I'm always fascinated about that relationship because it is also symbiotic,
meaning that both artist and model work closely for a duration of time
for the mutual benefit of both. The artist cannot express his ideas without
the collaboration of the model. And the model cannot 'perform' without
the audience of the artist. The intimacy of collaborating is very therapeutic
I make the commitment to work with a model, she is making the equal commitment
to work with me. It is a decision that I take very seriously because of
the consistency I need throughout my work. When I pick a model, I can
usually tell what type of longevity she'll have with my work. During the
time I was casting for The Altis series, I was very upfront with a model
about the commitment she needs to make toward our collaboration. Most
importantly, she doesn't have to be experienced at all, but it's everything
to me if she wants to be part of the creative process and build images
together in a collaborative way. There is great intimacy to creating something
from nothing. Trust is a huge factor in that. We build the images together
as we shoot, then edit and crop them together right on the floor.
thing that is very important to me is documenting what happens in the
studio during each shoot. My wife Karen has filmed in the studio for many
years and she has also interviewed all of my core models to hear their
version of the collaboration for the historical record of the studio.
So not only does the model help create the images, we document who she
is as a woman, model, muse and collaborator.
What have your models taught you about your work?
Models help take 'ego' out of the equation. I can't do what I do with
It is a shared experience.
Do you find that the more you work with a model, the better the images
become? Or are your results consistent as you work with someone over a
period of time?
Historically, I prefer to work with the same models over and over again.
Most photographers prefer to work with a new face or model every time
they pick up the camera. I'm the opposite. I feel that the longer I work
with a model, the stronger the images become. I would say that there is
a core of about 10-12 models that I've been collaborating with for over
10 years. They have essentially grown up in front of my camera and they
all have tremendous ownership about their collaboration with my projects.
I worked on The Altis over the span of 10 years, but if you were to see
it in its entirety, you would never know that the same model may be 10
years older or younger from one image to the next. It's seamless.
Do you feel that working with the nude presents specific challenges to
Not really, but I would say that if there are any specific challenges,
it would be on the selling side. Corporations almost as a hard rule do
not purchase figurative (nude) photography. I've been privileged to show
my work to a wide audience, be it museums or galleries and I was thrilled
when Bergdorf Goodman, the preeminent New York retailer of all things
luxury, acquired about 12 nudes that are on permanent display in their
store. As a public space, it was the right artistic environment to show
my work. It set a gold standard because it broke (or bent) the rule in
the States that it's taboo for companies to purchase nudes for their corporate
Why do you choose to work with female subjects
Hmmmm, no one has actually asked me that before. I've often thought about
shooting the male nude, but I'm not sure what I could bring new to the
genre. Maybe it's just that women are a lot more fun. I don't really know.
Perhaps its because I grew up in a house of all boys, so the opposite
sex is something that emotionally fascinates me. If I were to look deeper,
perhaps it's because my life is very "female-centric." As a
designer, my career has been dedicated to helping women feel empowered
through the choice of clothing she wears, or in the case of my photography,
how is she is portrayed in simple, honest terms. I like creating things
that women feel good about. I also like being around female energy. I
identify largely with it.
a little side bar to this conversation, and an interesting point to share,
women constitute about 85% of my print sales. I think that's the case
primarily because women find my nudes empowering. They are able to see
themselves in my work. I think that your average male collector looks
for a different type of nude.
You often "storyboard" your images,
sketching and planning them before you shoot. Do you ever work intuitively
without preplanning? Also, do your images usually turn out as you planned
them, or do the sketches act as only a starting point that lead to ideas
you hadn't thought of?
I find that working with large format cameras forces me to know what I'm
looking to get out of a shoot before the shoot happens. The film is just
too expensive. With The Altis, I sketched out and storyboarded the entire
project and it was shot in a shooting sequence similar to that of a filmmaker,
meaning that like-things were shot together, as opposed to being shot
in sequential order from beginning to end. Since I love drawing, I prefer
to work this way. I can conceptualize at any time of the day, make a quick
sketch, add it to my Sequence Book and shoot it when I can. It's really
a diary and a starting point. Nothing is ever rigid or cast in stone.
We always have the liberty to veer to the right or to the left. Sometimes
a model's body can't move the way that I've drawn her. Most of the times,
I will have to say, the final image looks just like the conceptual drawing.
Other times, they look nothing alike. I love it though when a model is
able to bring her own magic to the image, and veer away from the drawing,
making it stronger.
back to collaborating with the model, I show her the sketch before we
start to work. She'll know exactly what she needs to do. We discuss all
the details and possibilities so it's really a tool to get us on the same
page quickly, because I wont shoot a lot of film. In a 3-hour session,
I will shoot only about 30 sheets of film; less than the equivalent of
one roll of 35mm film.
equipment do you work with, and how does it dictate the outcome of your
images. Also, how does working with the immediacy of Polaroid film affect
I only work in the large format. I shoot with two Sinar cameras. A 4x5
and an 8x10. My set up is pretty simple. I never want my equipment to
get in the way of the creative process, and as I mentioned earlier, I
need a particular consistency throughout my work which forces me to keep
it simple so that I can replicate the exact lighting schematic if needed,
several weeks or several months later. I only shoot in studio with controlled
light. I use two 1000 watt Dps as the main source and two 500 watt Omnis
on the backdrop. I use homemade dimmers for all four lights so that I
can dial them up or dial them down as I see fit. That's it. Oh, I also
hand hold a Maglite to illuminate selective areas on the face or where
ever it's needed. I never use reflectors.
love affair with Polaroid began before I realized that I would become
a photographer when I shot Jane on the Spectra camera. I now shoot with
T55 (and type 665 before Polaroid discontinued the film) for 4x5 and mix
T804 and T809 for 8x10. Not only is T55 my favorite because it's so smooth
and velvety, but it's a great confidence builder with the model. She can
instantly see what she's giving back to the camera. It also allows us
to edit or make decisions right there on the fly… "rotate your torso
a bit to the left." Click. Wait 23 seconds. Peel the film apart and
we know if we made the right decision or not. My use of Polaroid film
sits at the very center of my creative process because by nature it makes
the experience inclusive for all.
You seem most attracted to history and the traditional.
Do you feel that by working within a traditional framework that you bring
anything new and/or "modern" to your images?
I'd like to think so. I hope that my work helps to evolve the tradition
of the genre. For me, the Nude is a genre that is one of the most complicated
things to get your arms around, and so easy to get wrong. There are so
many additional aspects that are projected on the genre from societal,
cultural and political aspects. I certainly have no interest in trying
to change the public's view of the Nude, but I hope that my work helps
to educate and promote healthy and positive images of women.
am also highly aware, as most of your readers are, that traditional photography,
as we know it today, will not exist in the same form in the near future.
I specialize in toning. I spent years studying 19th century toning recipes.
Most of the chemistry exists from yesteryear, but it's the paper that's
changed. The trick was to get old chemistry to work on a modern paper.
No easy feat. In the last year or two, I have lost one of my films (T665)
and Agfa has discontinued making my paper. We spent years perfecting all
of the elements…lighting, paper, and chemistry to create a look of platinum,
but not. I wanted a look that was even more romantic than platinum. I'll
now have to start that process all over again. I can't say today how this
will effect how my images will be printed in the future, but I do know
that it will not be the same.
modern photography continues to evolve, I know that my work won't switch
over to digital. That would be too easy. Not special to me. I'm also aware
that the market for the traditional is getting smaller and smaller. More
niche like. I don't shoot in color, I don't shoot in "snapshot"
style and my images aren't printed mural size. I generally print 16x20".
I'm finding something very attractive about the 19th century and alternative
processes. It's very self-sustaining. If I can't buy my paper, I'll make
it. If I can't buy my film, I'll make my own film. I want to not only
create compelling images, but also create images using a technique and
methodology that brings inherent value to it. An heirloom.
What have you most recently been working on,
and where do you see your work going in the near future?
I've been working on 2 new bodies of work that I'm quite passionate about.
I've spoken about one of them more publicly than the other. The first
is a body of work that explores why I feel the human pelvis is the most
fascinating and controversial bone in the human body. This body of work
will contain photographs, drawings, visual shapes or hieroglyphs and video
installations. The other project centers on a 19th century historical
figure. This project is definitely a point of departure for me and will
take my work in a completely new direction. I felt it was time to use
my voice as an image-maker in a stronger way. It will also be an image
based multimedia project. I think I will always use the human figure in
my work, but it may not always be the center of it.
What have your creative pursuits brought to your
life and in the end, how would you most like to be remembered as an artist?
I would have never thought in a million years that I would have started
an artistic exploration in photography, and more particularly the nude
as a genre. After all, I'm a fashion designer. 16 years later, I now love
the fact that by day I spend my energies creating a language of clothing
to dress and adorn the body, but by night, I reduce the layers and affectations
down to its essence.
is extremely self-satisfying and calming to me. It's something that's
mine, separate from the commercial world. It's something that I can do
the rest of my life. For that I am truly blessed. For me it's also all
about the journey, and those that I've met and collaborated with along
for being remembered as an artist, I think the night is way too young
Martin Cooper is a fine art photographer living and working
in London and hopes to publishing a monograph of The Altis. His work concentrates
on the photographic Nude, beautifully hand toned. He is also VP of Design
for Burberry, the British luxury goods company. His work has been collected
by The Polaroid Collections, The Henry Buhl Collection, the Beth Rudin-
Dewoody Collection and Bergdorf Goodman. Cooper's studio, OrchisArts,
makes contributions yearly to breast cancer organizations. Please visit
martincooperphoto.com to learn more about his work, or contact Jayne H.