"He had a good eye. He was quite funny," Mick Jagger remembered. "He was a junkie. He was a pain. . . . He had some wonderful pictures."
"He" was Michael Cooper who, with his ever-present Nikon, infiltrated the inner circles of England's new rock aristocracy in the strobe-lit '60s and early '70s, when London was swinging to a new sound track, when pop art was more than pop or art alone, when the only diary that made sense was a visual one.
Cooper, a photographer whose best-known works were the album covers for the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and the Rolling Stones' "Their Satanic Majesties Request" (which he also designed), didn't make it past 1973: A heroin addict whose worsening condition confined him to a wheelchair, he killed himself two weeks after his addict-companion killed herself. He was 31.
Cooper left behind an 8-year-old son, Adam, and a legacy of 70,000 negatives. In a final letter to his son, Cooper included a will. "In it I am putting everything I own and have, my work mostly," he wrote, "and this will eventually be worth something, I'm sure."
Eventually has arrived. Exhibitions of Michael Cooper's photographs have opened in Los Angeles and in Georgetown, and Cooper is the source and the subject of an astounding new book, "Blinds & Shutters."
Housed in a handmade solander box, with a sliding blind containing a photo unique to each book, "Blinds & Shutters" contains 620 photos reproduced in fine-screen lithography on specially made paper craftsman-bound in Moroccan leather and buckram. It's a limited, numbered edition of 5,000, with wonderful text provided by 92 of Cooper's friends and associates, who range from Rolling Stones (Jagger and Keith Richards provide forewords, and Bill Wyman helped to underwrite the project) and assorted Beatles, to such writers as Terry Southern and William Burroughs and such art world luminaries as Robert Fraser, Francis Bacon and Larry Rivers. At least 10 of Cooper's subjects have signed a special front page in each book (even Andy Warhol signed 100 copies before his death). It's $595 a copy.
What gives "Blinds & Shutters" particular power is the immediacy of the photos and their ability to evoke the era--"It takes you back, that's for sure," says Wyman, the Stones' archivist. Cooper was involved in a historic time with history-making people; they were friends, as well, so there's a very personal, unhurried quality to his photos that creates an inside overview.
There's also an undercurrent of tragedy. All too many of the subjects died before their time--the price, perhaps, of living too close to the pop culture fault line--of the Rolling Stones in particular. Cooper lived with Keith Richards for several years, was very close to Brian Jones, Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg, as well. "We were busy doing ourselves in," Richards writes in his foreword. "He made it."
For a video glimpse of Swinging London in the '60s, you can search out Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film, "Blowup." The David Hemmings character, a freewheeling fashion photographer, was based on a meld of Michael Cooper and David Bailey. Cooper started out doing fashion shots, including a number of striking Vogue covers, but his imagination was fueled by all things vanguardishly visual, and in London, that meant rock 'n' roll, film, theater and art.
"Those were those days," Beatles publicist Derek Taylor notes in "Blinds & Shutters." Terry Southern, who would fail in efforts with Cooper to adapt Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange" into a film starring Mick Jagger, calls it "an era of change and astonishment . . . of new concepts in art, in music, in fashion. It was a time when rockers and artists mixed, when the musical, the social and the political intertwined, albeit not always gracefully."
Francis Bacon writes that "it was a much more exhilarating and productive period than now--more like the '20s. There was exploration and excitement in all the arts and a feeling that something could happen. This feeling had nothing to do with 'value for money' as now."
"Michael got around," says New Zealand's David Hedley, whose Hedley Press is co-publisher of "Blinds & Shutters" with the British-based Genesis Publications. "I'm not sure how he survived monetarily, but he got around." He was in the right place at the right time--with a camera.
In fact, Cooper was set up in his own studio by Robert Fraser, whose Fraser Gallery was a vital center of London's new art world. It was Fraser's support and friendship that accounts for Cooper's photos of such artists as Jim Dine, Jean Dubuffet, Claes Oldenburg, David Hockney, Francis Bacon, Marcel Duchamp and, especially, Rene Magritte and Andy Warhol.
"Robert Fraser did the exhibit where John Lennon met Yoko Ono," Wyman points out. "His shows were very avant-garde, trying to do things that hadn't been done, stretching the rules and regulations of the establishment, and he got into a lot of trouble. Fraser went through the same things we did at the beginning of the '60s for trying to do things differently," including drug busts and an obscenity bust, the latter under a statute dating back to the Napoleonic wars that was intended to stop servicemen from displaying their wounds in public.
"He conceived of his life as being one continuous photographic assignment," Fraser says of Cooper. Mostly, he was on assignment in and around London, though the book includes forays to the Isle of Wight festival, to Tangier with the Stones, and to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where Cooper was the picture man for a reporting tandem of Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Terry Southern.
Those were the days.