Ed Cooper is perhaps best known as a mountaineer and large format photographer; his photography tells the stories of exploration and history-making ascents that humble and inspire. As a landscape photography hobbyist myself, his work is captivating and instills a sense of wanderlust, motivating me to travel and photograph everything.
What brought Ed Cooper to my attention was happening across his photography on social media after following a rabbit hole of mountain-scape photography and Mount Rainier ascents in particular. The element that grabbed me first was the depth of his work. From Maine to British Columbia, it would seem that he has taken the “portrait” of every scalable peak in North America from afar and on their summits, documenting the trek and the climbers themselves in between.
I chose to interview Ed Cooper because not only does he have an expansive gallery of breath-taking views and rich scenery, he is telling the story of the North American landscape through his art of photography. Through his social media channels, Ed Cooper elaborates on the photography he has taken over the past several decades, documenting a very competitive era of climbing in the 50’s and 60’s (frequently with large format gear). Swiping through his Instagram is like reading a visual history book on peak ascents and the early years of our National Parks; going into detail regarding the climb or subject, the setup of the shot, and the gear he used to take the photo.
What would you say is the reason you are inspired to do photography? Why landscapes?
I first became interested in photography when I was 13, but there was no subject that I had a passion for and so I lost interest. It wasn’t until I went out west with my sister when I was 16 that I was introduced to the mountains. Being from New York, I had no idea of what real mountains were. My sister and I hired a guide to take us up Mt. Rainier in 1953. I had finally found a subject that I was passionate about. At first I took pictures of climbs, but soon I began to seek out the mountains, and other nature subjects, for their portraits.
Looking through your expansive work makes me homesick for the west coast; what is it about shooting in the west that is so enchanting?
The West Coast is where the big mountains are. I honed my skill shooting in the mountains, but it wasn’t long before I expanded my horizons to include the sea, the desert, flora and fauna. And I didn’t restrict it to the West Coast; I made a number of trips back east to try my skill at these peaks and other scenic attractions.
One of the words I would use to describe your photography, would be “immersive.” Is it the intrinsic quality of landscapes that provide that feeling or technique?
I never took a course in photography, or sought the advice of other photographers, in my career. I have an “innate” feeling of what makes a good photograph in my judgment, and I had that almost from the start. I go to some location, look around, and zero in on what I think best represents the subject. At that point, I almost become “one with the subject” and everything else fades out of my consciousness. Recently I had a photographer ask me what I thought about the “rule of thirds”. I had no idea what it was and I am still not sure what that rule is.
What were some of the difficulties of being a landscape photographer early in your career?
Like many photographers, my main difficulty was finances. For a number of years I got by on practically nothing. I remember one month in October 1960 when my total expenses for the entire month was $7, and that included gas for the clunker I was driving. I managed to get some very unusual equipment for my 4x5 gear by shopping in the New York area for cast-off war surplus camera equipment, including a 36” spy lens, weighing about 20 pounds, which I adapted to making a one-of-a-kind telephoto lens for large format photography. It wasn’t until I had been serious about photography for 15 years that my photography generated enough income to support a family.
Mountaineering is difficult enough with standard gear and packs; what is it like hiking with medium and large format gear? What are the challenges of packing with cumbersome camera gear?
My first medium format camera was a 2 ¼ square Voightlander Perkeo camera which I acquired in early 1956. This was no heavier than many 35mm film cameras. In 1961 I acquired another 2¼ square camera, a Zeiss Super Ikona IV, I could shoot both color & B&W on the same trip. The weight was still not overbearing. It was not until 1962 when I acquired my first large format camera, a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera; that weight and bulk started to make a difference. I had to be selective on which equipment to bring on a particular hike or climb. For the first ascent of the Dihedral Wall on ElCapitan, I carried the two 2 ¼ cameras. For hiking and climbing around Yosemite Valley for non-technical climbs, as well as a trip in the Canadian Rockies, I brought along the 4x5 camera. As time went on, I kept moving up in camera size as well as lens size and weight, up to an 8x10 view camera -- I had to be very selective on which equipment I took where.
What was your favorite mountain-scape to photograph and the most challenging? Were there opportunities for photography that were too dangerous?
I can’t really pick a favorite mountain-scape to photograph. I like them all, and wherever I happen to be working with a camera is my favorite at the moment. The most challenging would have to be on big wall climbs or dangerous climbs, like some volcanoes, where I have much more to worry about than simply getting photographs. I have to rank Willis Wall on Mt. Rainier as the most dangerous climb I have done. I did get a few photos characterizing the dangerous nature of the climb, and I certainly would not go up there again, or recommend any one else to go up there. Liberty Ridge in the center of Willis Wall is supposedly the “safest” route on the wall, where a tragic accident occurred in 2014, with an avalanche sweeping six climbers to their deaths. I have climbed that route as well as a more dangerous line on the wall.
You stated that you have “gone completely digital”. What is your preferred set up now and why have you made the switch?
The reason that I have now gone completely digital (starting in 2007) is two-fold. First, as the years went by, I found it more difficult to carry heavy packs with all the (film) photography gear that I needed for large format photography. That included not only a view camera, but a heavy tripod, an assortment of lenses of different focal lengths, a generous supply of film holders, a changing bag, and other accessories. I had also accumulated a film photography library of over 100,000 images already.
Second, I saved a lot of money. My film expenses really mounted up. At almost $2 for every sheet of 4x5 film shot (including processing) I couldn’t afford the 50 sheets a day or more of shooting in the field. Further, I didn’t have to scan film to digital form as I was already shooting in digital. I did give up the extremely high resolution result of converting film to digital. I typically scan 4x5 at 2400 dpi, giving an image size of roughly 280 MB, good enough to make a 30x40 inch print at 300 dpi. With digital it is hard to go bigger than 16x20 prints without noticing degradation of the image, but the cameras are getting better all the time with higher resolutions.
What would you say is the biggest difference between film and digital beyond developing time and convenience?
Digital allowed me to experiment more, knowing that I wasn’t burning a hole in my pocketbook. I could shoot a lot more and have a choice of exposure times to get the best result. And, the images are ready (with sometimes downsizing) to post on social media sites.
You’re very active on social media; how much time do you devote to it a day? What leverages have you seen since becoming active on Instagram/Facebook/Twitter?
Every day I am in the office I try to devote some time to scanning selected film, and posting to Instagram and Facebook. For me, I don’t just post an image. I describe what the photo is and any historical facts about the image, but also why I took the image and what about the image that stood out for me. Very few people who post do this. That is perhaps why starting from 0 followers on Instagram a year ago in the autumn, the number of followers is now about 40,000. For many of my posts I wed 20th century images to 21st century Instagram. It seems to be popular. And, for very recent photos, NO SELFIES!!!
What advice do you have for aspiring landscape photographer enthusiasts and pros?
People do photography for many different reasons so it is difficult to give blanket advice. I would say that getting out there and shooting and seeing what your results are is very important. You can see what works and what doesn’t work. Books on photography, and how to sell your photography, can help. Being a member of a camera club might help. Pick a subject for photography that you are passionate about would be very important. The world is wide-open for you as a photographer. Your results will be what you make them!
Thank you Ed Cooper for this wonderful interview and your wealth of knowledge! To learn more about Ed Cooper and his stunning photography, you can follow him on Instagram or check out his websites below.
Personal site: http://www.edcooper.com