Several weeks ago I shot with Zach Cooper, a videographer, producer, and photographer who shares my love of place. For several weeks prior we discussed where we might shoot– he was eager to find a location that was both visually interesting and important to me emotionally. We toyed with the idea of shooting in a vintage shop, but finally landed on the facade of the Met Museum. Apt, considering I work in the art world and grew up nearby. (A side note: I sat on the Met steps every day for lunch in the fifth grade and managed to bully approximately no one. Take THAT, Serena van der Woodsen)
The Met turned out to be the perfect location. I think it brought out a certain ambition in me that translated to my body language. New Yorkers feel a kind of ownership over “their” institutions, and my sense of belonging right here, on the steps of the Met, is very powerful. I have a favorite room (the vast American landscapes of the 19th century) and a second favorite room (the modern art exhibit just past the Sol Lewitt murals). I have childhood memories and adult ambitions. You can see it on my face and in my stance.
It was also the ideal location for Cooper’s creative eye. “When we shot at the Met I wanted to capture the beauty of this magnificent architecture while also making you the main subject of the photograph,” Cooper wrote to me after our shoot. He achieved this feat through lighting and framing.
In On the Steps I, my red and white outfit presents a stark contrast, but the two-toned staircase offers a more evocative relationship between colors. Cooper’s manipulation of light and shadow strengthens the contrast of grey tones on the staircase, making the architecture a subject in and of itself.
In On the Steps II, Cooper plays with lines. My body mirrors the vertical lines of the ionic columns, while contrasting perpendicularly with the horizontal lines formed by the steps. The composition is complicated further by the diagonal line formed by the metal railing. This construction prevents the work from becoming stagnant. The viewer’s eye follows these lines, jumping from plane to plane.
Cooper grew up in Charlton, Massachusetts, where there are more trees than stone monuments and baking-hot sidewalks. “Because I grew up in the suburbs and now live in the City, I love to combine the City with nature in my photographer,” he says. “Growing up in the woods let me appreciate the beauty of the atmosphere I’m shooting in.” And so, after some time we wandered up to 86th street, where the Ancient Playground of my childhood still stands. It’s not quite ‘the woods’ but the greens are vivid and the air is sticky with humidity and nostalgia. Thick trees overlook brick structures, merging the natural with the manmade. It was the perfect spot for Cooper to explore his aesthetic interests, capturing the energy of both nature and the human touch.
In Ancient Playground I, Cooper frames the photograph without a hint of blue sky, allowing the viewer to immerse fully in this wonderland. There is no sense of anything beyond shadow and green. And isn’t that what it’s like to be a child? To see no farther than the pyramid before you, the sandbox behind? Cooper also demonstrates his command of light, perfectly capturing a sunspot from between the trees without overexposing my portrait. Instead, the light dances off my hair, framing my face.
Cooper identifies as a street photographer. When asked to define what this means to him, he explained that the term exemplifies his process. “I move quickly, incorporate the environment into my shots, and capture true, raw moments as they happen,” Cooper says. You can see the effects of this practice well in the Ancient Playground series. One minute the light comes at me from the side. I close my eyes gently and lift my chin. The resulting photograph, Ancient Playground I, is calming, almost ethereal in nature.
The next minute my hand reaches the rim of my glasses, and my eyes have swiveled around to meet the viewer’s. The light has shifted too, to the center of the sky like a spotlight. This second picture, taken moments after the first, is slightly confrontational. It has attitude. Cooper’s ease and speed allows for these moments to happen organically.
“”I love that I can capture a natural movement in people because I believe it makes the photograph more inviting and more personable rather than an overly staged photo of someone,” he says.
I’ve worked with photographers who take five minutes to set up a single shot, and while the result is often mesmerizing, it can be quite exhausting. I appreciated how comfortable our shoot was– both interpersonally and for my lower back (standing still takes a toll!!) Cooper makes the active effort to engage with his models, telling anecdotes and asking questions. I’m very much an extrovert, so chatting allowed me to express my thoughts, which Cooper was then able to snap between sentences.
“At the end of the day,” Cooper says, “I want to create beautiful images, establish new friendships, and most importantly have fun along the entire way.” It’s a simple and modest request, elegantly achieved and far surpassed due to Cooper’s skill with both people and the camera.
You can see more of Cooper’s work on his website, or through his Instagram. Follow him for a daily dose of people, captured truthfully on the streets of New York City.
Until next time!