Bare thin arms against aluminum siding, 1981
Woman with red lips smoking, 1975 / Courtesy ROSEGALLERY
Bubblegum, Wilkes-Barre, 1975
Torn shirt, Wilkes-Barre, 2012
Blackberries, 2008 / Courtesy ROSEGALLERY
LE BAL presents the first major showing in Europe of the work of the American photographer Mark Cohen, with a corresponding book, jointly published by LE BAL and Editions Xavier Barral
Mark Cohen was born in 1943 in Wilkes-Barre, a small Pennsylvania mining town. A figure of the street photography genre which dominated American photography in the early 1970s, he is also the inventor of a distinctive photographic language, marked by a fleeting arrangement of lines and, at the same time, an instinctive grasp of the organic, sculptural quality of forms. Two photographs hang opposite each other in his studio: one from Henri Cartier-Bresson's surrealist period and another by Aaron Siskind. The elegant geometry of one and the dry plenitude of the other transpire in the work of Mark Cohen, which John Szarkowski showed at the MoMA as of 1973.
Over the past 40 years Mark Cohen has walked the length and breadth of the streets in and around his hometown, seizing - or rather extracting - fragments of gestures, postures and bodies. In his photos we see headless torsos, smiling children, willing subjects yet still frighteningly vulnerable, thinly sketched limbs and coats worn like protective cloaks.
Thus Mark Cohen slices and sculpts the very thick of the world to impose, in successive touches, a Kafkaesque vision, ruthless and poetic, of an environment that encompasses him. A vision from within.
This remarkable body of work - Cohen rarely uses the viewfinder, holding the camera at arm's length - is rooted in impulsions that last just fractions of a second. A disconcerting strangeness emanates from his subjects, some caught in the dazzle of the flash. Bodies seem uncomfortable, threatened, lost, grinning too wildly or reduced to their erotic dimension. Ordinary objects appear isolated, mysterious, sinister. The decline of this small mining town is right there, in its yards, at its bus stops, on its porches, but Mark Cohen's intentions are anything but documentary.
Repetitive to the verge of obsession, he has no idea what brought him there or what he hopes to find. Rather he is driven by the beauty of a chance encounter, by the torments or delights he detects in another's substance.
There is, in the brutality of his gaze, a rawness and a nervous energy, an ambivalence and a grace through which the making of a photo becomes the expression of a revelation.
« There’s a rude, restless energy to Mark Cohen’s work that feels frantic and a little alarming. His camera is a hit-and-run vehicle, swerving so close to his subjects that he often chops off more body parts than he can fit in his tight frame, leaving only knees, necks, bare torsos, grasping hands. Even his still lifes are volatile, unstable. Like Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, Cohen sees the world askew.
This is Wilkes-Barre, the once thriving, now depressed Pennsylvania coal town Cohen has always called home, seen through the photographer’s shattered looking glass.
His Wilkes-Barre isn’t an example of urban America in decline, it’s a mindscape, an abstraction all the more compelling for its dreamlike specificity.
“I would have loved to have been like Dorothea Lange - socially concerned,” he says. “But when I was trapped in Wilkes-Barre for the next fifty years, I became a surrealist.» Cohen isn’t especially interested in the theater of the street - the sort of charged, poetic tableaux that were Helen Levitt’s specialty–or the social circumstances of his subjects, many of whom are headless and seen only in fragments. His images are more visceral. No matterhow many times he’s prowled these streets, he doesn’t allow himself (or his audience) to get too comfortable; his uneasiness, his anxiety sharpens the work and keeps it raw.
Mark Cohen knows there’s still something “inappropriate” about many of his pictures–he’s too close, too much in your face–but that’s what’s thrilling about the work. His pictures don’t let us relax and pretend we know what we’re doing here. Like him, we’re at home, but we’re still strangers on a strange land. »
This vivid energycan be found in the book Mark Cohen - Dark Knees, conceived by Xavier Barral Éditions to coincide with the exhibition.
Curators : Vince Aletti and Diane Dufour
Exhibition produced with the Nederlands Fotomuseum (Rotterdam).
In collaboration with Bruce Silverstein Gallery (New York) and ROSEGALLERY (Los Angeles).
With the support of the Cultural Affairs Office of the Embassy of the United States in Paris and Champagne Henriot.