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.)


Bruce Grant said...

I saw Cohen speak a couple of times in the 70s, and was struck by his strangely detached affect. Thirty years later, having raised a child with Asperger's Syndrome, I would probably describe Cohen (at least at that time) as displaying traits suggestive of being somewhere on the autism spectrum. Which would make sense -- the nearly obsessive interest in a fairly narrow range of subject matter...the lack of a "neurotypical" sense of boundaries and personal space...coupled with a nearly complete lack of personal engagement. Of such "deformations" is art so often made.

(And BTW, when you described Cohen's working approach as sui generis, the first thought that came to my mind was Bruce Gilden.)

Tim Connor said...

Thanks, Bruce. That's very persuasive. Re Bruce Gilden, I saw his mano o mano shots with the Yakuza guys in Japan & it seemed more macho-style than Cohen's approach, which seems like some weirdly misguided attempt at tenderness.. Your diagnosis sounds right. The strangeness w Cohen is there doesn't seem to be any hostility. He really wants the PICTURE. Which reminds me -- I got a note on Flickr from my friend chuckwheat, who tells me the video link in the piece wasn't working when he read the post. I FIXED IT RIGHT AWAY. Sorry. That video is what I based most of that post on. I have never seen anything like it. If you read the piece before it working go backnow & look at the video.

Chris Bonney said...

Yes, Bruce Gilden came to mind immediately as I started reading this. I'd never seen any of Cohen's work before. Had only heard the name. Thanks. You'd have to get me really loosened up before I'd be gutsy enough to throw a camera and flash in people's faces a la Cohen.

Tim Connor said...

Here are 2 comments chuckwheat left over at flickr:

Thanks for posting the Mark Cohen info; I wasn't aware of his work but am drawn to it now.
Unfortunately the video link isn't working.
At least he's a pro photographer. That's still not much of an excuse to some irate citizen who thinks he should be thrashed for taking candids.
Amazing that he hasn't been roughed up, had his camera damaged.
He's prolly the talk of the town...

The video is very interesting, even though I don't understand German.
His body movements are quick, fluid, necessary to get in & out before
people have time to consider much.
Looks like he could be hassled for stalking, something, even though I don't think he is. People can get very defensive when they see a camera.
He reminds me of a Hunter Thompson quote: "The more normal you look, the more you can get away with."
Do you have any specs on what he's shooting; film, digital? A Leica?

My response: It's a Leica. Some kind of fast color neg film. I know he likes to work at fast shutter speeds. This was the 70s. Pic dates in the True Love show are from 1975 - 1979.

Wow Gold said...

fantastic blog.

Wow Gold said...

what a blog ! .

Anonymous said...

I live in Wilkes-Barre and Mark is my neighbor. He lives right across the street in this bizarre yet incredible house that his wonderful wife has adorned with a conglomerate of objects. We have him over for dinner regularly and I can't describe how interesting it is to spend an evening with him. I'm glad your a fan!

gwadzilla said...

nice piece...

I do some street photography
and well
I know that the response can be varried

in the end
the result makes it worth while

thanks for introducing me to these photographers!

Anonymous said...

Another friend of Mark's here. I came across this blog by chance looking for some images of his photographs to direct an online friend to.

This is a pretty good and perceptive piece, and it’s gratifying to read someone who writes about how he’s been pigeonholed. I think most of his work does grow out of his street work, but not necessarily directly. You might say it’s developed from other things he happened to see while on the prowl, or trying to “confront” an overgrown yard the same way he might “confront” a person (there’s a lot of “invading” going on in Mark’s work), or from seeing the kind of special world the flash coud make, or from looking at the way the silver lies on the paper. (Mark’s photographs have great “thinginess.” They’re physical objects. The color, though, less so, unavoidably, I think.)

Mark does NOT work as a commercial photographer during the day. He tried it for while when he was first starting out, but for years has only taken a gig now and then. He is purely an “art” photographer.

I gather the video being referred to is one I’ve seen elsewhere: There’s nothing “animal” about his behavior; there’s a lot about a guy putting himself in precarious, potentially dangerous situations, and dealing with fear. There’s a high in it. Maybe you need a high to do it!

As for Asperger’s, that’s nonsense. He’s never liked to speak of deal with the public much. Mark is a highly cultivated, well-educated person who cares deeply about art and literature, has a great deal to say about the current state of the world (at any given moment) and though he values his time, can be gracious, warm, charming, very funny and good company when he wants to be, which, with his friends, is much of the time.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous No. 1 from Anonymous No. 2

I always thought their house was one of the most elegant around. It's an upper West Side mansion in Wilkes-Barre. See the house in "The Royal Tennenbaums." Reminiscent.

Tim Connor said...

Dear Anonymous, Thanks for that information. I'm glad you understand that I'm a fan. My phrase "like an animal" BTW was a simile to describe Cohen's movement in the video, not a putdown.As an artist, he wants/needs those pictures. It makes perfect sense to me he's "a highly cultivated, well-educated person who cares deeply about art and literature, has a great deal to say about the current state of the world (at any given moment) and though he values his time, can be gracious, warm, charming, very funny and good company when he wants to be..." It would be great to meet him.

Anonymous said...

I know Mark fairly well and the "Asperger's" comment is pretty laughable. He might have a quirky public speaking persona but he's a nice, intelligent guy and a great thinker.