A lazy, late summer Sunday finds me back in my city of Albuquerque, hanging out in a coffee shop, sipping on an Aranciata Rossa and thinking about photography. I wandered through the Railyard Market earlier, and was struck by the capacity for Albuquerque to embody both the feel of a small town yet have the pulse of a much larger city. Running into fellow local photographers and artists, as well as aging scenesters from my former days in the music world, made me appreciate the benefits of living away from the coasts, away from the hustle of really-big cities, especially New York, which always loomed just over the horizon when I was growing up in New Jersey.
You may wonder what the relevance this has to my weekly exploration of one photograph / one photographer. Perhaps it is serendipitous that I decided to focus on the work of Mark Cohen today. For those of you who are not familiar with the man or his work, he is one of the unsung heroes of street photography, creating stunning images for well over 40 years. What is certainly a point worth noting is that he has built his career in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Staying outside of the center of the art / photography world that is New York has perhaps kept him somewhat off-the-radar, and thus, perhaps limited his exposure to a wider audience. Nonetheless, his work is powerful, jarring, sometime surreal even, and on par with that of his contemporaries that have enjoyed greater critical acclaim and popular recognition.
The image I am looking at today is probably the first image I saw of Mark Cohen’s work. Formally an untitled work, it is sometime called “Bubble Gum” and dates from 1975. There is so much energy in this image, and at the same time, so much mystery. Let’s take a closer look. We see a black and white photograph. The subjects are illuminated by a flash unit, most likely hand held, slightly off camera, based on the position of the highlights. The use of the flash is key here, as it not only lights the scene, but also stopped the action, that looks as though it was in flux during the shoot. There is evidence of a slightly blur as the lighting falls off of the hand in the top /middle of the frame, and the background utility pole and buildings also show a blurriness. What draws me to this image is the strange geometry it presents. The way the bubble sits along the bottom of the frame, while the side of the face and hair lurk just behind, the hand of another person creeps up through the middle of the frame, and the dreary looking urban environment that falls of into the distance creates a formality to the photograph as it pushes the viewer’s eyes back toward the action in the middle.
There is a strong, subconscious element at play in this image, and acting as an armchair photo critic / psychoanalyst, I will delve deeper into what I’m seeing and feeling while looking at this image. The scene feels like it could be a still frame pulled from a movie of a dream. It certainly has a surreal quality to it. The use of the flash certainly heightens this feeling. I could imagine Cohen wandering through his town as night was falling, and coming upon a group of children, deciding to inflict himself into their world, their environment, with burst of light and a click of the shutter. The fact the we see no face behind the bubble adds to the anonymity of course, and when I see that hand above the head, it brings me back to the “Paul is Dead” rumors that swirled around the Beatles during their release of Sgt. Pepper’s, a hand above Paul’s head meant to signify “he was being blessed by a priest before being interred.” Though my shrink might have other interpretations, that is a potent symbolism for my reading of this image. I could also make an assumption that the hand is in the process of coming down hard on the figure blowing the bubble. Could it be the action of an over-zealous, over-physical friend or sibling trying to burst the bubble? Or it could be simply someone trying to get themselves into the photo.
If one explores more of Mark Cohen’s extensive body of work, you would see that he uses this faceless, tightly cropped approach in much of his work. The disjointed, faceless limbs, chests, knees and hands that appear again and again, often covey a feeling of violence, of invasion, of latent sexuality and of a breaking down of the barriers of personal space. I have seen videos of Cohen photographing, and he employs a similar technique to that of Bruce Gilden, where he often surprises his subject with a flash and a thrust of the camera while they are strolling along, minding their own business. The fact that Cohen often photographs children or teens probably causes him more trouble in a small town. Shooting on the streets of Wilkes-Barre would most likely make Cohen a more obvious presence than a photographer blending into the masses of humanity on the streets of New York City.
Which brings me back to my opening point. I must add additional praise to the work of Mark Cohen, strictly because of the environment that he chooses to work in. I feel an affinity with those photographers working and creating away from the east and west coasts, and those who are toiling away in what may be a deeper obscurity because of it. It is also a challenge to blend in when you are wandering with a camera in a less populated area, for sure. But there is also a great freedom that comes to those who work away from the spotlight. It may bring the development of a style that is more dependent on what is in the mind of the photographer and less about what complexity might linger in front of his or her lens.