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On Now: Michael Cooper – Stone 50

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To commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Rolling Stones, Centro Cultural Borges has inaugurated Stone 50, a superb exhibition based on photographer Michael Cooper’s work during the 60s. Delfina Krusemann talks to Cooper’s son Adam and his wife Silvia (who is also curator of the show) to find out more about the man behind the camera.

Keith Richards in sunglasses (photo: The Michael Cooper Collection)

Keith Richards in sunglasses (photo: The Michael Cooper Collection)

It’s all there. The legendary image of Keith Richards with dark glasses, looking at the sky, a ray of sun mystically reflecting in the lens. Or that other picture of Richards inhaling in the desert, covered by a blanket. But there’s also him eating an apple, quite asleep, at a terrace in Nellcote, in the south of France. And another one of Mick Jagger at the back of a car, looking idly through the window. Bill Wyman is there, too, checking out a polaroid photo right after the band’s show in New York during “Their Satanic Majesties Request” tour in 1967. Of course, there’s Brian Jones as well, posing for a picture taken just two days before he died, with his hands in a sign of prayer.

If you want to see what was like being the Rolling Stones in the 1960s, it really is all there, in Michael Cooper’s photographs. The myth and the mundane. The most intimate, ordinary moments, mixed up with a few eccentricities of fame, like sleeping in big furry coats and having five o’clock tea wearing Oxford jeans and flowery blouses – no doubt as British as a rock band can get.

'11 Hands' (photo: Michael Cooper)

’11 Hands’ (photo: The Michael Cooper Collection)

“There were lots of good photographers out there, but Michael was special. It was not just that he was talented. As Keith Richards said, there was real honesty in his pictures, meaning he was a friend first and a photographer second: he never wanted the band to do something special for the camera. He just wanted them to be natural and real,” explains Adam Cooper, Michael’s son. “If the Stones were at the studio, Michael would stay the whole session, wandering around very quietly and snapping away, never asking them to stop and pose or do anything in particular. He respected the band for their work and the band respected him for his – that allowed him to be present at very intimate moments.”

That exclusive access is present in every picture. And so is the photographer’s talent. Stone 50 is one of those rare exhibitions in which the observer feels not only a witness but also a participant of what is displayed. There is so much more than just a hundred snapshots hanging on the walls – there is something more like an everlasting glow, a relentless pulse that is still beating strong. These pictures are alive, ringing true as ever. It is the closest you can get to traveling back in time to that magical decade of creative outburst and experimental freedom, taken by the hand of one of the musical bands that became protagonists of such era.

Adam Cooper, himself a photographer and film producer, has been working with his father’s collection for over 30 years. That’s more than three times the time he spent with him as a son: Michael took his own life in 1973, when his son was just nine years old. “The press loves to say that Michael died of a heroine dose but that’s simply not true. He was off the drugs. His death was a combination of a lot of personal tragedies and the sixties dream coming to an end… And so Michael took the decision that he took. It was very sad, but I have never been angry with him.”

Keith Richards in rehearsal (photo: Michael Cooper)

Keith Richards in rehearsal (photo: The Michael Cooper Collection)

Adam got his father’s collection when he turned 18: 70,000 negatives all mixed in together in a couple of cardboard boxes. “I had to wash and clean everything and soon I started to realise the gold I had in my hands. Then began the journey of following his notes, he left thousands of them. But I never get tired of going through his work, mainly because we keep discovering new material. Not only from the Rolling Stones, of course. Michael also photographed The Beatles, Andy Warhol, Rene Magritte, and many others from the music, fashion, and social spheres. It would be easy to put up exhibitions of all of it all over the place, but we know these photographs are special and so we just like to do special things with it. I am sure Michael would be proud of what we are doing with his legacy.”

His wife Silvia, also curator of Stone 50, nods and talks as passionately as a woman can about her father-in-law: “I fell in love with Michael’s work as soon as I met Adam, 25 years ago. I connected with him in a very special way, not only through the images but his notes and letters as well. I was attracted by his unique sensitivity. He was able to see the world as a real artist, discovering the extraordinary in the most ordinary things. The quality of what he produced in just ten years is amazing.”

Adam continues: “Silvia and I often wonder what would Michael be doing if he were alive. He would be 73 now, and he would probably still be taking photographs… when the first digital cameras came out, we both tried to imagine him working with no limits. The 70,000 would probably add up to a million by now!”

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at Stonehenge (photo: Michael Cooper)

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at Stonehenge (photo: The Michael Cooper Collection)

However talented Michael Cooper was, he was never driven by economic reward. “Money meant nothing to him. He was not paid by the Rolling Stones, nor any other band. For instance, he shot the cover photo for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band and he did not get a penny. In those days, business never came into the scene. Sgt. Pepper’s… was a concept by Michael and The Beatles and Peter Blake, shot in Michael’s studio. They just wanted to make it happen, money was not an issue.”

A true artist and beloved friend, Michael Cooper was at the epicentre of the sixties when “all” happened, and he had his camera to immortalise each moment with talent and sensitivity. And it really is all there, in high contrast black and white snapshots. Don’t miss it!

Michael Cooper: Stone 50 can be seen at Centro Cultural Borges, Viamonte 525. Entrance ticket $40. Open Mon-Sat from 10am to 9pm and Sun from 12pm to 9pm, until mid March. Then the exhibition will be taken to different Argentine provinces and Santiago de Chile.

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