From September 23 to October 11, the city of Grand Rapids has transformed three square miles of its downtown into a radically open, independently organized, international art competition that is free and open to the public. This event, known as ArtPrize, has been hosted seven years in a row. In that period of time, approximately 10,688 entries have been made, 1,181 venues have participated, and $3.6 million have been awarded in prizes, according to their webpage: www.artprize.org.
Of the 1,551 entries submitted in Art Prize 2015, there is one particular piece that deserves some extra Hornet love. Its name is, “Flat Iron at the Ledyard,” and Kalamazoo College’s very own Russell Cooper is the photographer behind the lens.
At first glance, the photograph looks pixelated and digitized, as if it were purposely edited to seem futuristic. However, if you take a closer look (and if you read the artist’s statement), you’ll learn that little to no editing has been done at all. It turns out to be a single location, featured from a multitude of perspectives, using hundreds of 4×6 printed pictures that have been carefully cropped and placed just right so that the large-scale image becomes a whimsical, “Picasso-esque” version of the actual landmark. Originally constructed in 1860, the Flat Iron Building on the Ledyard Block is one of the oldest historical buildings in downtown Grand Rapids. Cooper gave it a modernized makeover in his fourth ArtPrize entry.
Cooper started this project in April. Over the course of five months and six different visits, he accumulated the various building angles, skies, and pedestrians to reconstruct the corner of Ottawa and Monroe Center.
“I even got my children in one of the shots. Last year, I put myself in my piece, riding a roller coaster,” he said, revealing the ways in which his creativity plays with ideas of reality and fiction.
Cooper is a member of the four-person team who takes on campus’ wide array of tech problems at the library’s Help Desk. Cooper graduated from K College in 1989 and has been working here ever since, celebrating his 26th anniversary in August. His official job title at the moment is “Helpdesk Administrator,” but he explained that every nine years or so, his job evolves to fit the school’s needs.
When asked how his job relates to his photography, he answered, “For the longest time, I’ve just taken my camera to campus events, where I’ll [take pictures of] things like Freshmen Convocation. A couple of times I took great shots of the faculty walking in, [dressed] in their gowns, and sometimes the PR Department asks me, ‘Hey, Russell, can we use your photos?’”
Cooper has done more photography work for the college than just Convocation, though.
“I’ve taken almost all of the staff photos for our building, Information Services, and I did Gail Griffin’s book cover for the Events of October,” he said. “I submitted it to the editor, and I think they darkened it up and made it look all ominous.”
Off campus, Cooper has photographed landscapes, portraits, and events like car shows, weddings, anniversaries, and birthdays. He is still trying to get the perfect sunset, the perfect lightning strike, or the perfect rainbow, which all keep eluding him.
Although Cooper explained that photography is just his hobby for now, a couple of his photos have received some claim to fame. For instance, an Ohio travel guide published a photo he took of his favorite roller coaster at Cedar Point, The Millennium Force.
“Not to brag,” he said, “but, food shots!….As annoying as it may be to some restaurants, I love taking pictures of food.”
National Geographic is going to be publishing one of his photos in their new book that showcases foods across the country, featuring the cudighi sandwich from our local Comensoli’s Italian Bistro & Bar in Kalamazoo.
“I want to go back to Paris. My wife is a French teacher, and we used to chaperone trips together. I would love to go back with this camera. Yeah…it would be fun to get to be a travel photographer. If I could make a living off of [my photographs], it would be great.,” Cooper said about where he would like to take pictures in the future.
When posed with the question of what he plans to do next, he said his thoughts are already on next year’s ArtPrize, and although he isn’t quite sure what his subject will be yet, he knows he’s looking for another iconic Grand Rapids area to pique the interest of locals and visitors alike.
If you’re interested in checking out Cooper’s full body of work, check out his flickr account at: www.flickr.com/bellzatk, where you will be able to see his last four ArtPrize entries and as his other collections of photos.