Robert Cooper
Robert Cooper

Story & photograph of Robert Cooper by Andrzej Pilarczyk
All additional photographs by Robert Cooper

Robert Cooper’s recent photography exhibition at Boho Chic Boutique in Waterford ushered into Greater Nippertown a new photographic voice worth hearing. The 25 images on display in the back room of the fashion/accessories boutique drew viewers into a wonderful, wide-ranging world of the artist’s vision, documenting Black American culture and his Pan-African ideology.

His images run the gamut from intimate female portraits to dynamic dancehall reggae stars. With his camera Cooper is able to convey the sheer excitement of a live concert performer, as well as capture the delicacy of the black female form in a nude study. His images incorporate his subjects in the widest spectrum from urban America to natural landscapes.

Originally from Michigan, Cooper began taking photographs seriously a little over nine years ago while a student in the School of Journalism at Manchester Community College in Connecticut. After graduation he worked as a free-lance writer and photographer for several weekly papers in the Hartford area. The writing took a back seat as his passion for photography took over and he was photographing everything from Jamaican dancehall parties, traditional African weddings, fashion shows, hip-hop and reggae concerts and portraiture.

Balance Pon Yuh Headtop Hellshire Beach Ja
Balance pon yuh headtop, Hellshire Beach, Jamaica

Cooper currently resides in Troy, where his portrait of President Obama was recently featured in a members’ exhibit at the Photo Center of the Capital District.

Robert Cooper was gracious enough to answer some questions about his artwork and experiences:

Q: Your images are remarkable, and though you’re focus is on Jamaican dancehall and reggae music/ musicians, in many of them, there is considerably more depth of vision. Many of your photographs focus on friends in the arts community behind the scenes. What are you attempting to convey with your work?

A: My purpose is to show the energy, the craziness, the fashion and the characters you get when you go to a dance, as well as showing the energy that you get from going to a dancehall or reggae concert. Most people don’t understand the culture or have misconceptions of it, but I just want to give you a glimpse of you what I see when I’m there.

Q: Several of your images are from NYC, some from Connecticut and many from Jamaica. What drew you into your fascination of that incredible island nation? Was it the music first or its culture?

A: It was the music first. I started listening to dancehall in the early 1990s and started going to dances in the mid-’90s in Chicago. When I started taking photos, I started in New York City for a website based there, before I brought the whole concept to Hartford, where I was living. I wanted to take the photos because the style of dress can be way over the top, unlike anything that is seen anywhere else.

Q: The man in dreadlocks sitting in a chair on the mountain; the lovely Jamaican lady almost doing a cartwheel in a window overlooking the ocean; and the woman sitting on the floor with graffiti and art work behind her on the wall captured my attention. What are the stories behind those portraits?

A: The man sitting on the chair on top of the mountain is my friend Tarishi. He’s from Connecticut, and he’s the best poet in the tri-state area. We do a lot of artistic projects together – some still photography, some videos. That photo was part of a series of photo shoots we were doing in Meriden, Conn.

The young lady in the photo on her headtop was taken at Hellshire Beach in Jamaica during a break from a video I was shooting there. She was one of the dancers, and her dance name is Bahamas, because that’s where she’s from.

The young lady on the floor with the graffiti and art behind her is my good friend Latoya. She owns a vintage clothing store in Hartford, and if you were to look through my portfolio, she probably makes up about 60% of the images I have taken. We do so many photos together we are just in sync. I call her my muse, my artistic partner. We took that photo in her shop, and the graffiti and art is from friends and customers who come to her shop.

A light shines on Latoya in her vintage clothing shop
A light shines on Latoya in her vintage clothing shop

Q: For lack of a better definition, your work in all its spectrum conveys a documentation of both your life’s travels and, for the viewer, a sense of the term ‘Blackness,’ as the legendary Gordon Parks once framed his exhibition of his work. What was your vision in assembling the photos that make up this solo exhibition?

A: My vision for my photography, and for the 25 photos I had in the exhibition is always a documentation on Blackness. And not the negative Blackness that permeates mainstream media, but Blackness that is beautiful, unapologetic, complex, full of life. Blackness that is often times misunderstood and taken as a threat. Gordon Parks, of course, is an inspiration of mine, as is Malik Sidibe and Frances Wolff.

Q: Is this your first solo outing? Where have you exhibited before?

A: This was my first solo exhibition, and I am very grateful to Carrie VanDerhoof, the owner of Boho Chic. I have been a part of group exhibitions in Springfield, Mass., and Hartford, Conn. I’ve also had my photos displayed at Café Vero in Albany. I hope to have more in the future, and I am already trying to come up with a different set of photos and themes.

Q: What is the unifying thread that ties all these images together?

A: I would say that the unifying thread is what I spoke about earlier, Black culture. My eyes reflect my pan-African ideology. You see West Indians, African-American and continental-born Africans in my photos. I hope that people will see that although we come from different parts of the world, we may talk different, and we may have different cultures, but there is always one thing that connects us, and that is our African lineage.

Q: At the reception, there was a good turnout of interested patrons seeing your work. What were your feelings that night; what comments did you receive; and what are your thoughts now?

A: The feeling that I had on that night were excitement and accomplishment. As a photographer there is no greater joy than having a solo exhibition of your work. Everybody who came through said they loved the photos. And it was very fulfilling to get positive feedback from some other photographers who were there offering compliments.

Now after the show my thoughts are that I want to go out and take more photos, I want another show, and I want to do a book.

Q: Thank you, Robert, for your time. Are there any thoughts you would like to add?

A: Thank you for thinking of me for an interview. My thoughts at this moment are about the times we are entering. I hope that artists speak to people who are hurting right now or upset about the election results. When times are bad, artists have always been there to express what people are feeling in compelling, and interesting ways. I hope to be able to create art that moves people.

A Pretty Face in the Crowd
A Pretty Face in the crowd, Kingston, Jamaica
Tarishi M.I.D.N.I.G.H.T., on a mountain in Meriden CT
Tarishi M.I.D.N.I.G.H.T., on a mountain in Meriden, CT
Di Ras in Kingston, Jamaica
Di Ras in Kingston, Jamaica
Crazy Hype doing his dane move MVP in Kingston, Jamaica
Crazy Hype doing his dance move MVP in Kingston, Jamaica

Comments are closed.