A photographer who shoots from the hip

Mark Cohen’s photographs are not always pretty, in fact they’re somewhat stark images and, at first glance, brutally impersonal.  His show, “Strange Evidence” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art documents a visual conversation between the artist and his subjects.

If you had to describe Mark Cohen’s style you’d think of a cat prowling the streets in search of his next catch. Armed with a camera, fast film and a flash, he aggressively captures quick, precise glimpses of people and places in his hometown of Wilkes Barre. His photos are rather gritty, tinged with a certain tough-love attitude. 

“When you involve another person in your picture you set up a kind of trespass especially as close as I am, now I’m talking about the 70’s now, it’s much more difficult to do that now, but in the 70’s the early 70’s I would use a wide angle lens, I would get very close to the people on the street and I never talked to them,” said Cohen.  “I would do it just in passing, I would slide by them, make a picture with a flash because it was easy to make a good sharp clear picture and just disappear.  But when I did this there was some kind of electricity to do that”.

Peter Barberie curated Cohen’s large exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He titled it “Strange Evidence” because the photos capture random bits of people and landscape that have no particular message or purpose.

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“When you look at all his pictures together over time as we do in this exhibition where we have 40 years of pictures more or less in the region that he feel this is on,  which is northeastern Pennsylvania in this strange small cities in the midst of the country side I think you can start to understand the historical situation of this place over the past 40 years and that’s another way of defining ‘strange evidence'” said Barberie.

Cohen doesn’t see himself as a storyteller or a documentarian. His  photos exist on their own, they are the story.  “I’m not doing journalism,” said Cohen.  “I’m not trying to make some statement about what happened when the coal mines closed. I’m just walking around looking at what’s going on there”.

Yet inevitably the viewer wants to complete the narrative revealed in the image. Meaning exists in spite of the artist’s intent,  says curator Barberie.

“I think his photographs are full of meaning,” said Barberie. “The glances that people toss to the photographer, the way that they clutch their bags or they coats, the way they hold themselves and relate to this person that’s sometimes invading their space. They way that the setting of the city of Wilkes Barre which is the most frequent setting for his pictures, the  way that that looks at certain times of year and in certain decades, there’s tons going on. There’s tons of meaning in the work”.

Mark Cohen is an heir to the 1950’s American school of street photographers who rejected carefully framed images in favor or a more aggressive, spontaneous shots. Their inspiration is the celebrated French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson, who in the mid 30’s broke all rules to start capturing  the “decisive moment” in street life.  That moment can be seen in Cohen’s photos of a bus filled of weary passengers shocked by his flash or of a woman half hiding her breasts visible in a revealing halter top or, in one of his few color photographs, of a group of kids defiantly hamming it up for the camera.

“It’s a picture of a bunch of kids and  one kid has a yellow shirt and he’s smoking a cigarette and he is about 12 years old and he’s got his cronies with him and they’re just so filled with life, you know, and I’m coming up the street and they’re coming up the street and I just take the picture,” said Cohen.

The exhibition showcases four decades of Cohen’s work, some of which was shown at a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1973, or in a more recent show at the Academy of Fine Arts, but most were rarely seen before.

“What I think I do as an artist is make negatives I  walk in the street and make 36 pictures and then make these negatives,” said Cohen.  “I put these negatives on a light table and I go right from the negative to the print. It’s like the shortest way to the realization of the art but the art is on the streets with the camera. It’s not printing.”

Mark Cohen’s show “Strange Evidence” will be at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Pearlman Building until March 13th.

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