Thursday, November 12, 2015

Mark Cohen's Throwback Street Photography

Decades before Instagram photographer Daniel Arnold amassed 118,000 followers by capturing street scenes below eye level and surreally framed, Mark Cohen was cementing a style of street photography that has become not only iconic but fashionable decades later. Cohen recently told Vice's i-D magazine, "If you look at the advertising in Vogue, you'll see a lot a pictures that look like I might have taken them 30 or 40 years ago. In the New York Times, you see pictures with people's heads cut off all the time. When I first did that, it was seen as extremely radical, but now, it's very common." In a recent
HuffPost Arts and Culture piece, photographer Michael Ernest Sweet reminds contemporary audiences that Mark Cohen's style was paradigm-shattering at the time: "In precis, both Cohen's way of working, as well as his product, were entirely unfamiliar to a vintage audience."

Many of Mark Cohen's iconic images were taken on the streets of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in the 1970s. The scenes captured in these photographs amount to more than just street style fashion photography; Cohen's work is emotional and evocative. "There's an autobiographical thread to Frame that's very hard to explain even to myself. But it's about life, your work is really about your life in some ways," he explains. We asked Mark to take us back to the moment he created some of his images. F
or Throwback Thursday, enjoy these six short pieces written by Mark Cohen detailing the process and spirit behind photographs from his most recent book, Frame: A Retrospective.

Behind the Images

By Mark Cohen
Bandaged Boy on Bike, August 1998
From Frame: A Retrospective

Bandaged Boy on Bike, August 1998, is about my use of speed and the life intensity of the small boys playing more or less wildly. And it is about the bandages—just visible as they zoom by—seen around this kid's arm and chest. A bandage in a picture creates an eerie unease or discomfort.

I was using a 50mm lens, panning along with the boy to have the much-needed depth of field as there was no time to focus, a normal lens, as I did more and more frequently, at this time, 25 years after the 1970’s, to keep my distance, and safety, from the very close and confrontational interactions when I would get inches away with the 28mm lens.

The boy sees me as he goes by and when I see this negative I see that there are two bandages, adding to the sense of surrealness of the picture. We meet eye to lens as he flies by. He has defiance and speed and I have pretty good focus. The shirt is like a part of a Weston contact print and it all goes on with Hollywood lighting.

Man and Food Bag, September 2001
From Frame: A Retrospective
Man and Food Bag, September 2001 a sidewalk in Edwardsville, Pennsylvania. I have a lot of pictures of men with bags, often much closer than the photograph of this man, but I have here interrupted him in a significant way and invaded his space and he is turned to me almost in anger as I take his picture as he is going along. In the background, unnoticed at the time because of the speed and carefulness in making this “contact’ with this man, I do not see the little windows that are the beautiful top of this picture. Also I do not see his thumbnails at the bottom of the frame and how they are the same size as the whites of his eyes, so it’s a pretty good picture. About photography, about this guy, about me, and about things in 2001.

Boy in Yellow Shirt Smoking, 1977
Frame: A Retrospective
I saw this gang of kids and the Boy in Yellow Shirt Smoking, 1977, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I saw this great leader and how wonderful his attitude was. His freshness and how his group was all with him and all this was in the first glance as he showed me how he could smoke, so it was a picture right in front of me. The color film was only a detail. But in the print you see all the other things that are recorded accidentally. A giraffe! Four fingers on the black kid’s head, the red lollipop, the color TV test pattern shirt. All this is chance. The beginning of the picture is the guy and his posse and his cigarette. I saw this group approach and felt that there might be a picture here so I took this one. A key moment. A lot of my pictures evolve from these chance encounters. This one lasted three or four seconds and we all moved past each other.

Upside-Down Girl, 1974
Frame: A Retrospective
Upside-Down Girl, 1974—playing with a small group of children near a backyard. I heard a lot of noise. Kids running around and screaming. I saw her hang from her knees on a handrail and swing back and forth. I put the camera very close to her face and made this negative. I might have wanted a close-up of glee. I was not looking through the viewfinder and at this point I probably had stopped even putting the viewfinder on the camera. I just wanted her face to fill the frame. The negative revealed the wonderful spill of hair and the eyes, as slits of white, as she demonstrated her great skill at acrobatics. On the concrete steps there are cracks and leaves to complete the accidental setting, the degraded locale, which has not slowed the children’s exuberance at all.

Snow and Black Garage, March 2004
Frame: A Retrospective
Walking in an alley in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, in 2004, it began to snow with those big flakes that seem to fall slowly and are the subject of many of my pictures. Snow and Black Garage, March 2004 was very easy in that no person was involved and no one saw me take the picture so there was no personal trespass. It is very beautiful and seems a little funny too, as the car is replaced with the falling snow. The depth of field was very shallow, and the space surrounding the black, dark, modern painting like rectangles that are the interior of the garage and the door of the garage easily present a field, a plane, for the frozen snowflakes as they fall. It is not completely dark. The construction of the door is seen on the left and the circle of the tire and some floorboards is on the right, so you can still see inside. The soft perimeter of the open garage and its door, holds this slightly tipped minimalist, atomic, cloud chamber, picture within the picture, in place.

Small Hand and Ball, 1987
Frame: A Retrospective
Small Hand and Ball, 1987 was made with Fujicolor 1600 ISO speed film. It was very light sensitive, grainy stuff but it allowed me to take pictures very fast and at high shutter speeds and small f stops so that I could work without focusing the lens and by placing the camera in position instinctually. I used this film for most of 1987. It was available in any drug store and so I would buy one roll at a time to intentionally run out of film, and this became a strategy of urgency to use as I worked, to force myself to walk toward a drug store in the city. I do not understand how this overarching set of conditions influenced my work but it became, for a while, a strategy to use as I looked for pictures. I saw this little hand that was so relaxed and gentle as it held the fuzzy ball against the dark grained textured background and how her red sleeve worked its way up to her only slightly visible neck.

Hole in Shirt, 1974
Frame: A Retrospective
Hole in Shirt, 1974—I was walking along the street in a poor neighborhood and saw a few kids at play. I saw the girl’s white circle of frayed sweater in the center of the frame. Her posture is wonderfully serendipitous as she leans up to the top left of the picture revealing her beautiful hands. The detritus in the background—the waste paper on the left and the overlapping boards on the right—says volumes about her environment. The tree’s inward direction above the boards, the contrasting patterns of the shirt and pants, capture everything that is in motion in this picture. It is simultaneously about sculpture and poverty and play.

Take a closer look inside Frame on our website here.

Mark Cohen’s photography is in many major collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the George Eastman House, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. He has published three previous books—Grim Street, True Color, and Dark Knees—and his work has been included in over eighty individual and group exhibitions.

It’s University Press Week, and today the University of Texas Press is participating in the blog tour. Thank you for visiting our blog! Please take the time to click on over to the other AAUP member presses participating in today’s tour:

No comments:

Post a Comment