“I’ve read Dante in the original,” admits New Orleans photographer Judy Cooper. This highly intelligent, unassuming woman forged a daring life’s path from university French professor to Fine Arts photographer, primarily as a documentarian of New Orleans culture.
During a ten-year period in the 1960s and early 1970s, Cooper earned an M.A. in English from Columbia University, Ph.D.s in both French and Italian literature from Tulane University, taught French at Loyola University and, in 1974, abandoned the lot, pursuing a Fine Arts career in photography.
Born an only child in Memphis, Tennessee in 1938, Judy Cooper grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where her father taught Economics at UAB. She first came to New Orleans as an undergraduate in 1955, where she studied English at Newcomb College. It was her junior year, spent in Paris, France, that shaped her future.
“We had excellent classes in French civilization, literature, art, philosophy and history at the Sorbonne. At that time few people thought of photography as art, but it was becoming popular to document your travels with color slides.”
While teaching French in the early 1970s at Loyola, Cooper played tour guide to French photographer Jean Pierre Favreau as he photographed Louisiana. The experience sealed her resolve, and within months she left a scripted academia for a venturesome art world.
Cooper chose apprenticeship over art school, working with photographers Ron Todd and Alan Hess in New Orleans. Together they formed Muse, Inc., a company that photographed Fine Art, both for archival purposes, such as the paintings of Ida Kohlmeyer, and as a record of gallery installations, such as projects for Galerie Simonne Stern.
“Probably our most interesting job,” explains Cooper, “was to make prints from old glass plates made in the nineteenth century by an Ursuline nun, Mother St. Croix.” With this project, Cooper strengthened her relationship with the New Orleans Museum of Art, which commissioned prints of the plates, mounting a St. Croix exhibition. In 1998, Cooper joined NOMA’s staff as its official photographer, where she continues event, documentary, and archival photography today.
Throughout, Judy Cooper’s self-discipline guides her in numerous ambitious and time-consuming personal portfolios. With series such as Women in Red, Twins, and New Orleans Sunday, she fills each frame with her human subjects, posed and staring, usually with a smile, into the camera and, hence, at the viewer. Cooper’s talent lies in the transparency she pulls from her subjects. Their expression, clothing, posture, and environment contribute to their humanity. Through Cooper’s photographs, her subjects, many of them the embodiment of New Orleans culture, reveal simultaneously both their individuality and the human condition.
“I want the viewer to recognize their common humanity with the people in my photographs.”
Cooper’s latest project includes a series of portraits of the twenty-four distinguished female artists and founding members of A.I.R. (Artists in Residence), the first gallery of women artists, for women artists in the United States. Founded in 1972 in New York City, this artist-run gallery provides “a professional and permanent exhibition space for women artists to present work of quality and diversity …and brings new understanding to old attitudes about women in the arts.” (-from the A.I.R. website)
During the past five years, Cooper visited these artists, many elderly and in fragile health, tracking them down worldwide, from New York to Paris. Her feminist subjects include modern figurative artist Nancy Spero (1926-2009), abstract ‘penis’ painter Judith Bernstein (b. 1942, known for her ‘phallic screw drawings’), and the gender-challenging realist Sylvia Sleigh (1916-2010).
Although in past years Cooper exhibited locally with the Still-Zinsel and Cole Pratt galleries, these days she shows exclusively with the women of A.I.R. She is a founding member of the New Orleans Photo Alliance (currently hosting PhotoNOLA) and is a recipient of the Louisiana Division of the Arts Photography Fellowship. In 2008 the New Orleans Museum of Art hosted the extremely successful exhibition Living Color: Photographs by Judy Cooper, which traveled to the LSU Museum of Art in Baton Rouge, the University Art Museum in Lafayette, and the Houston FotoFest.
Judy Cooper, a quiet, well-read, artistic visionary, lives and works in New Orleans. Her new website launches in January. In the meantime, Cooper shares her work via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
—*A similar version of this essay and the two listed above appear on the website KnowLA: the Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana History and Culture and within the upcoming book The Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana, a project edited by Michael Sartisky, Ph.D., President/Executive Director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and J. Richard Gruber, Ph.D., Founding Director of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, scheduled for publication in April 2012 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Louisiana’s statehood