Now into her fourth year, photographer and collage artist Emily Cooper is back at Pacific Theatre for another season, with the striking imagery that has become as synonymous with the theatre company as its faith-based theatrical mission.
Once again responsible for the images to accompany the company’s season of plays, including its season opener The Rainmaker (image above), it will perhaps come as no surprise that Cooper’s inspiration always begins with the plays.
“The spark comes from the words in the play,” says Cooper. “It always starts with the poetry of the word, and from there those words will create images in my mind and then I start to do my research.”
Calling the text “the box in which she must then think outside”, Cooper says the words drive massive amounts of research that she then uses to create a single collage.
“A lot of the research is to get into the heart of the play and understand the characters and the themes and try to create an image that is more metaphorical than literal,” she explains. “Once I have a good understanding of the play, my research involves going through thousands of images.”
Cooper points to the New York Public Library as one digital source, or dipping into the hundreds of digitized images she discovered during a visit with a photo historian in Portland. After identifying possible images from her research, Cooper uses them as a jumping-off point to begin working with the team at Pacific Theatre.
“We mash the images around and talk about what works and what doesn’t,” she says of the creative process with her client. “It is quite collaborative, but for the most part there is a great amount of trust that they give me.”
It is that belief in Cooper’s abilities in working with Pacific Theatre, that she says has made the work so successful.
“[Pacific Theatre Artistic Director] Ron Reed is always so excited to give me that freedom and I think that is why the images are always so unique and strong,” she says.
While Cooper insists the creative process is relatively pain-free, she also admits that there are times when she and Reed don’t see eye-to-eye.
“Sometimes we butt heads, but if we have a difference of opinion we battle it out with humour. It is never a horrible battle,” she laughs. “But those battles always make the image stronger because there is another point of view that gets infused with the image.”
Working digitally, Cooper does admit to sometimes having troubles letting go; saving every iteration as she works, Cooper often has to force herself to step away.
“Sometimes it is impossible to stop, especially when I’m zooming in at 400 percent to make sure every pixel is perfect,” she says. “There is a time at night that I have to walk away and slap myself on the wrist if I go back to the computer. Sometimes the more you manipulate the worse it gets”
For Pacific Theatre’s season opener, The Rainmaker, Cooper came up with 17 versions that she felt were contenders, with four ultimately making the final cut to be put in front of Reed and his team.
“When I first read The Rainmaker I felt the heat of the sun, of the really strong sun and the sexiness of the sun on your skin and sweating,” she recalls. “I was really inspired by the sun and I wanted that to be in the image.”
For the background images representing the men in the play, Cooper pulled from her collection of negative glass plates from the Portland photo historian. “They are all black and white Sunday portraits from the early 1900s, that I colored,” she says.
But it is the centerpiece of her image for The Rainmaker that is pure Cooper with her distinctive collage of Lizzie, a woman she saw as wonderfully sweet and one that she found particularly challenging in capturing.
“Her face is made up of quite a few faces,” she says. “I wanted her to feel sad but helpful, beautiful but not sexy, but not dowdy either.”
Audiences will soon get to see if she captured the heart of Lizzie for themselves.
The Rainmaker plays Pacific Theatre (1440 West 12 Ave) October 10 – November 1. Visit https://pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.