Thursday, July 30, 2009

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mark Cohen: Approaching the fear

"Jump rope," Mark Cohen, All rights reserved

For years I've carried around a couple of black & white images by Mark Cohen in my head. One is the girl jumping rope (above) & then there's this one. Both pictures, which use Cohen's signature technique -- wide-angle close-ups, flash, radical cropping -- have always intrigued me; but in all those years I never came across more than a few others -- all B & W -- & the only thing I ever heard about Cohen himself was that he shoots exclusively in Wilkes-Barre, PA, a down-on-its-luck former coal town.

So one late afternoon last week I skipped out from work & walked over to Hasted Hunt gallery to see True Color, a collection of Cohen's color work from the 70s . It's a show of modestly sized dye-transfer prints -- grimey, edge-of-grotesque people shots. But I'm not attempting a review here. Without question, the pictures work. They're riveting. What I want to talk about is how Cohen digs them out of ordinary life -- in effect creates a new way of seeing -- by an unusual way of shooting. Mostly, Cohen's method is surprise (another word for it might be ambush). Of course surprise is a strategy used by a lots of street shooters, but this is different. I've never seen anyone shoot strangers the way Cohen does in this video.

There's something animal-like about Cohen's way of shooting. Like an animal -- or perhaps a snake -- on the hunt he moves through the crowd restlessly, before locking his attention on his "prey," (not necessarily a person or group; it could be legs, a torso, a piece of clothing, a hairdo). His approach is fast, fluid & silent. His "strike" -- typically a single photo from inches away accompanied by a small hand-held flash, -- is shockingly invasive. Nevertheless, its swiftness, the way Cohen instantly unlocks his attention afterwards & floats away, apparently indifferent, reassures the startled subject. Did it really happen? Was that guy just crazy? Well, he's gone now, thank god. Some of his subjects appear not to have noticed at all.

"Smoker" (rephotographed by this blogger with altered crop from Mark Cohen gallery print)

I have never known a photographer this willing to risk humiliation or even violence in pursuit of an intuitive attraction that in all probability won't become a good picture (maybe Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden comes close).

It's interesting that Cohen has lived in Wilkes-Barre his entire life, & perhaps even more interesting that his career there has been as a professional photographer. This is a guy who shoots sunny, flattering pictures all day, apparently, and then in his free time turns his hunt-&-snatch style to many of the same people & places -- this time unglossed. It's as though a Jekyl & Hyde personality is playing out in middle America. According to Cohen himself, shooting this way in his home town hasn't been easy.

“I’d shoot and walk away quick - I’d never talk to the people. To people who were watching what I was doing it looked like inappropriate behaviour,” he says...“The antagonism got worse as time went by. It looked like I was up to some suspicious activity - they’d say, why are you taking pictures? People would call the police - if that happened I could give an explanation. But people who didn’t call the police were worse. Because I had no explanation or credentials, people would demand an explanation and ask me why I was taking a picture of their house, their yard, their wife.”

“Sometimes people would take my licence plate number and find out where I lived,” says Cohen. “People like William Klein who worked in big crowds in New York were relatively anonymous, but in small towns like Wilkes Barre, taking pictures looks suspicious to some people - especially since 9/11.”

"Girls with bicycles," Mark Cohen, All rights reserved

Not surprisingly, the pigeonhole that curators & critics have reserved for Cohen doesn't quite fit for all his work. A cursory look at the online collection of his pictures at George Eastman House reveals a number that are more Dr. Jekyl than Mr. Hyde. For the record, Cohen likes gardens, porches and backyards in bloom, & his joy in color is persistent, almost palpable (working seriously in color in the 70s makes him a pioneer of that media) . On occasion his pictures might even be described as lyrical (see above).

Yet, at least in his personal work, the Hyde aspect does seem ascendant. Cohen continues to shoot in Wilkes-Barre -- utterly familiar & resolutely unpicturesque -- perhaps as a way to encourage this. He doesn't completely understand why he takes the pictures he takes, but he understands as well as anyone. “They are a long series of pictures that are very unconsciously driven. They are more psychological than anything else,” he says. “They are also autobiographical in some ways. My work is about fear and approaching this fear and a lot of it may be to do with my own way of thinking. Maybe that’s why some of the pictures work. There’s something I do that I don’t even understand now - that’s why they have this mystery.”

(All quotes above from the blog, Colin Pantall's Writing.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

End of tunnel nears for subway art

Touch-up for yellow stockings
"Vandalism or 'intervention' " (from Tim Connor's MTA Arts for Transit lightbox exhibit, Atlantic Ave-Pacific St subway station, Brooklyn), Photo by Lester Burg, All rights reserved

To me most graffiti seems simple-minded. And pretty much all tagging, especially tagging over other people's work, just seems ugly, a form of macho competition -- like dogs trying to piss higher up on the lamppost than the ones who pissed before. On the other hand, the little red flowers that recently appeared on the yellow stockings in my lightbox picture (above) at least have some wit. When I 1st saw them, they made me smile.

"Looking at 'The Gnome's Garden'," Photo by Ranjit Bhatnagar, All rights reserved

"Viewing lightboxes," Photo by Ranjit Bhatnagar, All rights reserved

I have no doubt this uncharacteristically tolerant feeling is because I learned -- at the same time I learned about the "intervention" in my picture " -- that next week my subway show will finally come down. My eight 4' X 6' lightboxes have lit up one wall of the underground passage to the Q train at Atlantic-Pacific subway station for almost a year and a half (I wrote about the show's beginning here & here). The run was a full half-year longer than usual, BTW, a result of the worldwide fiscal crisis, which rattled the MTA even more than most institutions. So I know I've been lucky. They told me when my show 1st went up that an estimated 10,000 people go through that passageway every rush hour. According to my high school math, that comes to almost 9.5 million people for the 18 months!

Of course none of those people were (at least not on purpose) members of the Manhattan art establishment. Ironically, it took some MOMA marketeer's bright idea of plastering cheap, life-size copies of world-famous art all over the station to get them to cross the river. The idea was, I suppose, that the big-name lineup would bedazzle the Brooklyn masses into coming to see the "real thing" on 53rd St.

Photo from "Ballad of Sexual Dependency" by Nan Goldin, part of MOMA's exhibit at Atlantic-Pacific (note my lightboxes across the hall)

Yet the MOMA-Brooklyn show was surprisingly lacklustre. One piece each for maybe 50 artists, it felt like a sampler's pack of commodified art. Not surprisingly, MOMA's arrogance proved too tempting to resist for NY's then-notorious outlaw mash-up artist, Poster Boy, who came to the station in the dead of night to strike a blow for artistic integrity (I wrote about it here).

Above picture by Nan Goldin, as altered by Poster Boy

In fact, Poster Boy's depredations of both old & new masters were funny for about half a minute (he left my pictures alone). But, I have to say, I find the idea that outrage is all it takes to make art to be childish. And the 2nd part of the formula -- that outrage plus bravado equals fame, which is also deemed a form of art -- I find even more dispiriting. As the Poster Boy kerfuffle ran its merry course in the papers & art blogs, I noticed that no one bothered to talk about the art -- or the anti-art for that matter -- you know, those things on the wall. It was the latest news, the buzz, the snide and/or snorting commentary that captivated everyone. The art was just something to argue about.

"AFT show with passersby," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

Which brings me back to where I started. This show is about to end. In another week at most (I haven't learned exactly when), it's gone. I hope, if you're a New Yorker, or traveling to New York, you'll go & see it.

The info is here (ignore the dates).

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The street goes on...

"Footlong," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

Excess of (money) work & worries lately. I've been low on energy & just haven't wanted to post.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Pretty dim

Real Fact #786 (Snapple bottle cap)

"The brain operates on the same amount of power as a 10-watt light bulb."

Friday, July 10, 2009

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


"There's something wrong with Esther," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

From an ongoing series -- to be assembled someday.

Same view two days ago.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Show hopping: Gustave Caillebotte & James Ensor

"Gallery yoga," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

I often wait for the end of a show's run before going to see it. Unfortunately, the show at which the above picture was taken closed today. But if Gustave Caillebotte: Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea , comes to your city, I'd recommend it. Caillebotte has the boldness and rebellious spirit of the impressionists but doesn't indulge, for the most part, in dancing light, bosomy serving girls in open air cafes or gardens. I had never heard of him before, but he makes me love the impressionist style all over again.

"Regattas at Villers," 1880, Gustave Caillebotte (French, 1848–1894)

I enjoy looking at paintings, maybe even more than looking at photos. I love to look at the way the paint is applied -- in
Caillebotte's case , it's considered & controlled but gives an impression of wildness. When looked at close up, his painting technique -- dabs, swathes, scratches, etc., combining & layering unlikely-seeming colors -- become, when one steps back, a convincing illusion of reality . For instance, in the Normandy seascape above, many of the distant sailing ships strung out along the horizon turn out, on close inspection, to be small, nearly shapeless blobs of paint. They could as well be houses or pieces of fruit, yet I saw them definitively as sailboats. This fascinates me. Part of the pleasure, I think, is not knowing how the magic is made. When I look at a photograph, I usually have a pretty good idea of how it was created. With painting I have no real understanding of how it's done. I can admire the work, empathize with the artist, but I can't put myself in his shoes. That frees me, unburdens my looking.

This weekend I also saw a huge & wonderful retrospective of this wildman at MOMA

skeletons James Ensor
"Skeletons trying to warm themselves," James Ensor, 1860-1949

Check out the
Peter Schjeldahl's audio slide show about Ensor. In his review in the magazine, Schjedahl says, "Ensor painted like an angel while conceiving like a devil. But it would take a susceptible soul to reward the MOMA show with Ensor’s strenuously sought response of laughter out loud." I don't agree. I laughed out loud a couple of times. Contrary to what I expected, this painter of skeletons, masks & demonic dolls was obviously having a lot of fun!

Saturday, July 4, 2009