WMU News

Nature photographer Cooper donates work to WMU

May 2, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- Thomas Cooper, an award-winning nature photographer and alumnus of Western Michigan University, has donated a print of his most-popular photo to WMU's permanent art collection, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the University's founding.

Cooper's "Beariscope" pictures a mother polar bear and her young cubs. Taken March 2001 in northern Canada, the photo has been honored in two international photo contests, published in several magazines, is the cover photo of this year's National Wildlife Federation calendar and will be featured on an NWF holiday greeting card, available in August. It was included in a fall 2002 exhibition of nature photography at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and is now on a world tour with the exhibition.

"Thomas Cooper's photo is a valued addition to the University's permanent art collection," says Dr. Margaret Merrion, dean of the College of Fine Arts, who explains that all works of art are reviewed by a committee before being accepted into the permanent collection. "Needless to say, the committee voted unanimously to accept Mr. Cooper's photo, and we are deeply honored that he chose to remember his alma mater with this centennial gift."

A native of Detroit, Cooper recently passed through Kalamazoo on his way from Detroit to Iowa, where he now resides, and personally delivered the framed 16- by 20-inch optical print of the polar bear photo. A 1980 business-marketing graduate, Cooper started taking nature photos in 1988, but says he didn't get serious about it until the mid-1990s and did not attempt photographing wildlife until 2001.

"Photographing wildlife, like the polar bears, is considerably more expensive and a lot riskier than scenery shots," says Cooper, whose portfolio also includes fall foliage in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and rock formations in the American Southwest. "With wildlife, you run a much greater risk of spending thousands of dollars and coming home with nothing."

Cooper says there is only a three-week window in February and March each year when it's possible to get photos of young polar bear cubs near Churchill, Manitoba. Considered the "polar bear capital of the world," Churchill is located on Hudson Bay and is a 36-hour train ride north from Winnipeg--there are no roads to Churchill. Cooper says he spent about $15,000 for equipment and $2,500 for travel and lodging for the 2001 trip when he caught a young cub peering over his mother's arm like a periscope, hence "Beariscope."

"Typically, you sign up for five days at 'Bear Camp' [a former military communications facility about 40 miles south of Churchill] at $600-a-day Canadian and then, you pray the bears and the weather cooperate," says Cooper. "Most weeks there are about 16 photographers there--mostly longtime pros--from all over the world, and sometimes they go home disappointed."

Each day that weather permits, teams of photographers go out with local guides in snow halftracks. On the afternoon that Cooper snapped "Beariscope," he was outside the relatively warm confines of their halftrack for four hours. The temperature--not counting wind chill--was 25 degrees below zero.

For "Beariscope," Cooper earned a "highly honored" recognition in the 2002 photography awards sponsored by Nature's Best magazine and Cemex, considered the most prestigious nature photography contest in North America. That resulted in his inclusion in the Smithsonian exhibition and several other opportunities to show off his work. Computer industry giant Hewlett-Packard has paid for the rights to use a Cooper photo of the Rainbow Bridge National Monument in Utah in an upcoming ad campaign for the company's large format printers. A Cooper photo of Antelope Canyon in Arizona made the 2003 Kodak Desk Calendar, "The Colors of Nature."

Claiming not to be an expert on wildlife, Cooper nevertheless acknowledges that to be successful, he has had to study the animals he photographs thoroughly, including their history and migration, mating and feeding habits. In addition to polar bears, Cooper has photographed bald eagles and plans trips to Alaska to photograph grizzly bears and India to photograph tigers in the wild. Most of his subjects are endangered or threatened species--including the polar bears--and Cooper speaks with passion about their plight.

According to Cooper, chemical pollution and global warming are threatening the polar bears, creating a shorter hunting season for the bears and causing lower birth rates.

"The Russians use some really nasty chemicals to clean their submarines," says Cooper. "The poison gets in the fish, the seals eat the fish, and the polar bears eat the seals. Only one of every two polar bear cubs survives the first year. That mortality rate is up significantly and so are the number of serious birth defects."

Although he has been paid for some of his work, Cooper does not consider himself a professional. His "day job" is managing an estate near Des Moines, which allows him enough time off to make three or four trips a year to pursue his passion for nature photography. He says he was inspired to take up photography by nature scenes his brother photographed and because of the influence of his father, who was a longtime medical photographer in Detroit.

Would Cooper like to be a full-time nature photographer?

"Sure," he says, "but this is an extremely competitive field. I've been getting some important recognition, but I'm still working to get my foot in the door. Making enough money from my photos to pay for what it cost me to take the photos would be a big step."

Several of Cooper's prints can be seen on his Web site at <www.coopersimages.com>. For more information, contact Thomas Cooper at <thomas@coopersimages.com>.

Media note: For high-resolution jpeg images of "Beariscope" or other Cooper photos, contact Thom Myers at (269) 387-8710 or <thom.myers@wmich.edu>. Any images published must include the copyright symbol and Cooper's name, (c) Thomas Cooper.

Media contact: Thom Myers, 269 387-8400, thom.myers@wmich.edu

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