The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Mark Cohen
Photo by Mark Cohen . Source:
Mark Cohen, "Bubblegum" 1975

Mark Cohen is no Vivian Maier; his work was first shown in the 1969 exhibition Vision and Expression at George Eastman House. In 1973, John Szarkowski gave him a solo show at MoMA and included Cohen in the landmark 1978 group show, “Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960.” Cohen has won two Guggenheim grants, published several books including his highly acclaimed “Dark Knees,” but as street photographers go, he’s never had the name recognition that some of his peers –Winogrand, Frank, Friedlander et al. achieved. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing his work before (not that that’s any indication of his street cred.) So where has Mark Cohen been all these years? As his powerful retrospective at Danziger reveals, he was right where he wanted to be: at home in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Born there in 1943, he spent his whole life in the area, earning a living as a studio and wedding photographer and doing his personal work on the side. And it is indeed personal and very unique. A short video on You Tube showing him at work reveals his modus operandi. Armed with a Leica and a small off-camera flash, he walks the gritty streets of Wilkes-Barre and the surrounding area in search of his “prey,” holding his camera at arm’s length without looking through the viewfinder. I watched how he would spot a subject, then approach quickly with camera stretched out and fire away. He captured tightly cropped heads, arms, legs, and knees. He caught his subjects by surprise and that reportedly and understandably led to some physical confrontations over the years. It reminded me of Bruce Gilden’s in-your-face take-no-prisoners approach but Cohen took it a step further with his focus on body parts. He sees them as shapes and forms and viewing these fragments on the wall of a gallery confirms his vision. You begin looking at people in a different way – not the whole person but in parts.

Photo by Mark Cohen . Source:
Mark Cohen, "Untitled" 1975

In “Jump Rope,” he crops off the head of a young girl jumping rope at night, which adds a new perspective to a childhood pastime. In “Untitled, Wilkes-Barre 1973” Cohen shoots low to capture a close-up of a woman (or girl) in a bathing suit. He’s so close you can see the outline of her genitalia through the suit – it’s too close for comfort. Yes, it’s voyeuristic. “Bubble Gum, 1975,” which appeared on the cover of the Sunday NY Times Magazine in 1978, may be one of his best known. It’s a photograph attributed to luck and timing – and of course, vision. In “Boy and Black Cat,” he crops off the top of the boy’s head but captures the odd angle of the cat’s head. It’s simply stunning. Cohen sees the angles and curves of arms and hands. He makes us look closely the way he does.

Photo by Mark Cohen . Source:
Mark Cohen, "Liverpool,December,1974”

In “Man and Bag,” he grabs a shot of a man holding a paper bag but it’s more than that—it’s the drape of the coat fabric, the tight grip and bend of the hand. While Cohen is best known for his black and white imagery, in the 1970s he also helped to make color more accepted as fine art photography. Of the five dye transfer prints in the show, I particularly liked “Boy in Yellow Shirt Smoking, Scranton.” He captures the spirit of the young smoker acting grown up while his friend sucks on a red lollipop. Another favorite was “Young Limb’s at Harvey’s Lake, PA,” where the artist let a half closed garage or shed door do the cropping. I marveled at how he was able to capture the juxtaposition of the girl’s red bathing suit and her raised leg with the straight-legged boy beside her.

Again, it’s a chance encounter that Cohen turned into art. Just like almost everything else in this exhibition.

Mark Cohen

Danziger Gallery
527 W 23rd St. Ground Floor
Chelsea         Map

Thursday, May 8 to
Friday, June 20, 2014
Hours: Tues-Sat, 11 to 6

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat