World Artists and their Story, 2 - Mark Cohen

Mark Cohen is a street photographer for 50 years. He has a place in the tradition of the major street photographers such as Eugène Atget, Garry Winograd, Hellen Levitt, Robert Frank and William Klein.  Mark Cohen explains some of his photos at the Rotterdam ‘Dark Knees’ exhibition.

‘See this photo here, ‘The boy with the two arms’. You see his pants. You don’t see his head. The background is rusty. He has scratches on his arm. That’s the social aspect of the photo. There is also a formal aspect. You see parallel lines going backwards. It’s accidental, you see it afterwards. The picture is almost surrealistic. ‘

Bubble Gum

We go to a picture of a man coming down the steps. Made in 1974. Darkness in the back of the steps. On the ground there lies a black coffee stain. ‘I didn’t see that water stain.  Just chance. It’s a picture that lets your imagination work.’

Next picture, a seedpot lying in the snow.  1978. You see some dirt in the snow, the seedpot in front. ‘It’s very minimal. The composition is beautiful. A lot of chance elements, also here.’

Two guys feet, 1973. We see two shoes of two guys, the right shoe of the one next to the left shoe of the other.  Also their socks. One shoe is broken. ‘They were sitting in front of an hotel.’

All the pictures have the same size, 30 x 45 cm. Three are blown up, to a big size. The girl with the pomegranate, 1974, where the pomegranate is all open. You see all the seeds.

Bubble Gum, 1975, an enourmous bubble gum. A hand stuck up above the bubble gum girl.  ‘A joke of a boy,  I discovered after shooting. It’s gives an extra touch. Everybody knows these pictures. They got a lot of publicity.’ That applies also for The Upside Down Girl,  1973. ‘Her hair is beautiful. She is looking right in the lense. She is performing for me.’

A Rohrschach picture

‘People find my pictures psychological. ‘It’s like a Rohrschach picture’, they say. I don’t have a plan. I take one picture at a time.’ All in Wilkes-Barre, the former mining town where he was born and still lives. 50 years he is a photographer now.

Cohen brings his camera right up close to his subjects, often without their awareness, and taking a photo that only captures a part of their physique. The close-ups that are thus created are notable for the emphasis that comes to lie on the texture of their closing or even their skin.

Cohen often comes so close to his subject that the photos tend to evoke an uncomfortable feeling. The photographer, and therefore also the viewer, penetrate the private domain of the subject. The photos are actually shot too close to the subject, so that the images have frames that slice through bodies and even faces. The meaning and the raison d’etre of the photo never becomes completely clear. This fact forms both the mystery and the artistic power of Cohen’s work.

A guy flinching

Asked why he has chosen his theme Cohen says: ‘When I am on the street, this is what I notice. Sometimes there is a certain change where I am sensitive to, and then I flash. You sure can say I am attracted to a certain sphere of social degradation, to the downside of life. I can’t make these pictures in a wealthy neighbourhood. The subject is there too, but carefully hidden.’

For his key piece, the picture that set a new course in his style, we  walk to a picture where we see a guy flinching, a big defensive elbow. On the right is Cafe Jaffe. ‘Never was I so close to a person. I was 27 years old. I had crossed the ‘imaginary space of a person’. It’s a kind of invasiveness, an intrusion. From then on many close pictures followed.’

His earliest interest in photography dates back to high school. ‘I read the Photography Annual. I went to study at Penn State University. I was an engineering student. But I also followed courses on Art History, about Nabi with Bonnard and Vuillard. About The Acropolis.  When I read Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment (1952) I decided to seek a career in photography.  I began to see what an artist was like. My parents didn’t like it very much. After some photography courses on Penn State and Wilkes College I opened a photographic studio for portraits.

Visual arts in a rectangle

Ánd he made pictures on the street. In 1973 his work was honoured with a solo exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The show got a good press, among others from The New York Times. ‘After this show I dropped out for a while, some ten years. However I kept making pictures. Many of them hanging here. ’   

Mark Cohen recapitulates his artistic philosophy: ‘It’s visual arts in a rectangle. Inside the rectangle there is an infinite spectrum of things that I can see. I am always keen on an incident to happen. The art exists in an unknown psychological medium. It can be any medium. It doesn’t happen in the dark room.’

From 13 september 2014 to 11 january 2015, the Netherlands Fotomuseum presents more than 130 vintage prints produced by the American street photographer Mark Cohen. Entitled Dark Knees, a large retrospective of his work from the period 1969 tot 2012 is on show in the Netherlands for the first time.

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