City of Contrasts:
A Conversation with Nicholas Alan Cope
Los Angeles is a land of opposites: sun and shadows, glamour and banality, ocean vistas and knotted freeways. Photographer Nicholas Alan Cope explores these striking contrasts in a series of photographs of the city’s built environment. Seen through his lens, everyday buildings become sculptural, significant, and a bit spooky. We recently spoke with Cope on the occasion of having his work in The Apartment by The Line as part of our collaboration with Artsy.
How did you become interested in photography?
I was born in Takoma Park, Maryland, and it kind of felt like everyone there had a government job. As a kid, I really wanted to get away from that, and I saw photography as a way out. I started studying photography as a teenager. I had a really great photo teacher in high school and spent a lot of time in the darkroom. In college, I ended up at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where I had a really great experience. And I’ve stayed out here in L.A. ever since.
What aspects of L.A. did you, coming from the East Coast, find most striking?
There’s such a huge contrast between the mid-Atlantic and Southern California. A city can grow differently out here because there’s more space. Aside from the mountains, it’s very flat and so dry. I always feel like on a sunny day it’s actually brighter in California than anywhere else. And that influenced the projects I started on.
Were you immediately drawn to the architecture?
With this flat and dry landscape, I kept noticing the plants. They seem so bizarre when you first move out from the East Coast, because you have all these succulents, so I was really into that. In school I started shooting the architectural series that turned into the book Whitewash [powerHouse Books, 2013].
Did you focus on a particular type of building or building material?
I was particularly amazed by stucco. It’s an interesting material, because at first it’s just kind of ugly and then up close it’s kind of ugly, but if you step back a little bit, it creates a really nice, really simple structural element to work from in photography. It shows the mass and the lines of a building really well. It describes them very evenly, because there’s no other texture coming in. It’s just this matte white. I got carried away with that for years.
Do you work mainly in black and white?
I love black and white. There’s something pure and simple about it. You can really get away from any extraneous information. And color really dates your photograph. It informs the viewer of where you are, what time period it is, what’s going on, and if you take that away, it’s much harder to tell. Good color is hard to come by. Color palettes go in and out of fashion, and color treatments go in and out of fashion, and I think avoiding that is really difficult. With black and white, there are fewer variables. So it’s kind of my default.
There’s a timeless quality to the photographs collected in Whitewash. Was that intentional?
Two of my big influences for this project were [photographers] Lewis Baltz and Grant Mudford. Looking at those two as well as Ed Ruscha—a lot of his works, because they’re quintessentially California—I think that aesthetic has creeped into my work. I’ve found that it’s all about controlling real-world references. You can take things out, little things, that maybe inform what time period something is, and it was definitely my goal to remove the photographs from the real world as much as possible.
Do you take that approach in all of your work?
I think it’s always interesting, regardless of what I’m shooting. With photography, the real power of it is that you can take somebody out of the context that they’re actually in through lighting and through propping. There are so many tools you have in photography. You can take something that is pretty ordinary and totally take it into another kind of mental space, another physical space. So that’s kind of the fun part for me—trying to make something new and unusual, and maybe even a little bit unrecognizable.