Geography lessons

Thomas Joshua Cooper ****

INGLEBY GALLERY, EDINBURGH

DY Cameron ****

NATIONAL GALLERY OF SCOTLAND, EDINBURGH

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my Dear/ And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:/ I will love thee still, my dear,/ While the sands o’life shall run."

Marvellous lines, surely the most romantic Burns ever thought up, and imagery that reflects his place in the Scottish Enlightenment and his knowledge of the very latest thinking it had produced.

The sense of the vastness of geological time that Burns conjures and, against it, of the impermanence even of the rocks and seas, reflects directly the arguments put forward by James Hutton in his Theory of the Earth: the earth is subject to constant change; everything we think most permanent, seas and mountains and even continents, is actually transient and impermanent, but these changes take place against a scale of time so huge that they are imperceptible to us who measure our lives by the puny scale of years and decades.

Hutton’s book was published just a few years before Burns wrote his song and it changed the way we see ourselves more profoundly than Darwin’s did. "Time," wrote Hutton, "which measures every thing in our idea, and is often deficient to our schemes, is to nature endless and as nothing; it cannot limit that by which alone it had existence ... We are, therefore, to consider as inevitable the destruction of our land … considered as a habitable world."

Against the expanse of geological time so perceived an individual life, even the whole of recorded history, figures no more than a single grain of sand in all the wide stretches of the Sahara. The witness to the truth of this, said Hutton, is geology. It is written in the rocks all around us.

Time has become a preoccupation for many artists. William Dyce in his painting Pegwell Bay pays direct homage to Hutton in the account he gives of the strata of the cliffs and the tides that have eroded them. People are no more than momentary visitors, mere fleeting shadows. But time is the very medium of photography and it is there that these things have been reflected on most constantly and the witness of geology interrogated most deeply.

This is what Thomas Joshua Cooper does in his marvellous photographs at the Ingleby Gallery, photographs which in their stillness and deep shadows emphasise the way that time is indeed their medium, and through which he revisits the same poetic sense of time that Burns conjured up so long ago.

But perhaps here Cooper also summarises his own preoccupation with these things in a selection of pictures whose subject matter ranges from Scotland and Europe to his native America. Rocks and water, geology and the forces that change it are always his subject. High Noon at the Funnel - the Snake River captures it vividly. He has caught the movement of water against the rocks. In the smooth blur of its surface we see the relentlessness of its power; how, though they may change its course now and generate whirls and eddies, in the end its timeless persistence will win and wear the rocks away.

We see that beautifully again in a view across the falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen where, by subtle shifts in focus, the rocks assailed by the roaring water seem as impermanent as the trees that cling to them so precariously.

This is a view that Turner painted and this kind of reference often informs Cooper’s work, putting it in a wider context than the merely contemporary. To the title of a photograph of a fallen boulder beneath a cliff of sedimentary rock, Squinting in the Hot Afternoon Light, Boulder with Wave Markings, for instance, he adds the subtitle Remembering Hokusai. Hokusai’s The Wave is his most famous image. Invoking it here it reminds us of the action of waves and water that created these rocks so long ago and now as casually tumble and shatters them.

Though he has lived in Scotland for many years, in this Thomas Joshua Cooper belongs to an American tradition. His work recalls Ansel Adams in, for instance, his memorable pictures of Yosemite, or before him, Timothy O’Sullivan photographing Mexican ruins beneath a towering cliff of stratified rock. And Cooper pays direct homage to O’Sullivan here. Broken Boulder in the Late afternoon Sun is subtitled remembering Timothy O’Sullivan. Thus he consciously aligns himself with this tradition.

Perhaps it is the grandeur of the geology of America that inspires this kind of soliloquy about time and the witness of the rocks. But there is another perspective Cooper offers. One of the loveliest photographs is a view across a pool to a cliff and a little beach that catches the light. The title reads Remembering My Father’s Tribal Grandparents, Autumn on the Little Blue: The Cherokee Nation South East of the Vinita Homestead, Oklahoma. Identifying himself thus with his own Cherokee forebears Cooper steps out of the tiny, temporal frame of the European settlement of America to align himself with something older.

This is also part of the inspiration of the great American landscape photographers who preceded him, as well as of the first American modernist painters like Arthur Dove or Georgia O’Keefe. These artists looked to the permanence of the landscape and the long established human presence of its original inhabitants for a sense of continuity that could root their own sense of difference from Europe. At this point too, before Thomas Joshua Cooper brought this tradition to Scotland, it had touched Scottish art and literature profoundly. Seeking a form of expression for his own sense of identity William Johnstone took inspiration from his American contemporaries to look into the remote past of Scotland’s own indigenous people to find a modern form of expression for it. Something very similar happens with Lewis Grassic Gibbon and indeed Neil Gunn.

For all the awe that the geological perspective may bring, in art like this it is informed too by a sense of the importance of human continuity. And so even though there are no figures in any of his photographs, Thomas Joshua Cooper’s art is nevertheless profoundly human and that is the source of its poetry.

Dealing with such themes, the economy of black and white and the mystery of shadow are an essential part of the impact of Cooper’s art. The same economy is the essential characteristic of etching, and of the master etchers of the last century it was DY Cameron who exploited this most effectively. As a result there is close analogy between his work on view at the National Gallery and Cooper’s photographs. They use similar means to explore similar themes. In Cameron’s etching of Ben Ledi, for instance, the dark mountain above shadowy water is grand certainly, but it is grand without melodrama. We are given a sense, not of the towering presence it has when measured by a human scale, but of its actual scale.

Really, for all its grandeur, it is tiny against the space of the sky above it. And when he explores the eroded stumps of the towers of Tantallon Castle, or the dark ruins of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, we are given a sense of human continuity, but also of the greater vastness of time against which we must measure it.

• Thomas Joshua Cooper runs until 8 May, DY Cameron until 6 June