PRINT March 1978

Mark Cohen: Recognized Moments

MARK COHEN IS ONE OF the few contemporary photographers who appear to be retreating from the notion of propagating a consistent, logical, definable, closed style. Cohen utilizes images that are fundamentally “torn” from their contexts, more so than those of most photographers. In his show last winter these images were mixed, displayed in such a way as to alter the meaning and impact of each. Cohen’s expanded vision leaves us with the remnants of our desire for coherence within a given body of work, even one which has already been perceived as “bizarre.” And it presents us with certain questions about what we expect a photograph to mean and what we perceive as content.

It is often argued in writing about photography that there is a real need or compulsion for human beings to make associations between things, especially when confronted with more or less recognizable images. Photographers who back off from all but a formal responsibility in their photographs are sometimes seen as operating in bad faith, abdicating accountability for content—unless they are considering “content” in thoroughly esthetic or abstract terms. On the other hand, a common reply is that pictures should be read as pictures (if the photographer so intended), and not as conveyors of any involuntary meaning above and beyond the obvious image.

Photographs now are usually judged on the potency with which they communicate a photographer’s “vision,” that is, the way the photographer sees or conceptualizes, and then portrays, the world. It has become a commonplace to expect a photographer to fabricate a uniquely recognizable depiction of his or her vision, usually through an explicit style or a unified subject matter. Indeed, we demand and revel in the singular created world set before us, whether it is a world defined by public documentation or private “vision.” As the practice of photography, especially as an expressive activity, has widely increased, the struggle has shifted from producing coherent images out of the multitude of visual data—as John Szarkowski noted in his Looking at Photographs—to producing coherent images which separate themselves perceptibly from the burgeoning number of other photographs, while at the same time representing the photographer’s intention.

In his essay “Style,” Meyer Schapiro considers the investigation of style as “a search for hidden correspondences explained by an organizing principle which determines both the character of the parts and the patterning of the whole.” Schapiro is talking about a methodology of art-historical study, one whose premises could be damaging if applied to photography, mostly because they would concentrate attention on inapplicable traditions. However, other implications of Schapiro’s theory may be helpful in Cohen’s case.

In early Byzantine manuscripts, changes in style manifest themselves in different areas of the same image. Often, secondary figures are painted in a more venturesome way, while the central figures retain older, more rigid forms. Schapiro concludes that “such observations teach us the importance of considering in the description and explanation of a style the unhomogeneous, unstable aspect, the obscure tendencies toward new forms.” He notes that “if in all periods artists strive to create unified works, the strict ideal of consistency is essentially modern.” The homogeneous, recognizable style is as important to photography, at present, as it is to painting or sculpture. Mark Cohen himself is among the most successful at having constructed a characteristic vision, an identifiable style. But his exhibited body of work manifests unhomogeneous breaks which oblige us to acknowledge the variability of everyday perception—the engrossed attention accorded to some seemingly insignificant things and the glancing, meager attention accorded to others.

Over the last several years, Cohen became recognized as the creator of photographs in which cropped, fragmented images taken at close range predominated. They were either strobe-lit or exposed in a way that recorded ambient light as an expressive or obvious component of the image. They were described as enigmatic, baffling, bereft of obvious meaning, or, at the other extreme, as indulging in social commentary. Andy Grundberg has even pointed in Cohen’s photos to “two discrete planes: a detailed, bright protruding foreground and a murky, unsharp flat background” (Art in America, March–April 1976). Grundberg evoked Szarkowski, albeit negatively, saying: “Thus the reality/image nexus of the medium is mimicked internally: the frontal plane seems to have been ‘selected’ from a cluttered, half-illegible ground.” (This view assumes that the choice of one thing over another is in some way self-indulgent.) Unless it became too obviously limiting, this kind of achieved recognizability would be considered as an accomplishment. Instead, Cohen is now splintering our previous notion of his particular vision.

There is a sense of jagged, telescoping jumps in space in the photographs, taken together. The close-up, hyper-lit photographs were shown along with newer ones, but they didn’t predominate. So there was the sense of a great flexibility of sight, as if the viewer had been equipped with an automatic zoom lens. Some images had an oddly stable character, while others were rendered as extremely ephemeral. The world was no longer a place where a framing edge, a paper bag, or a chewing-gum bubble directed perception, where confluent accidents provided a vision out of what had been obscured or removed. The vision now derived from a pervasive explication of movement and time.

A beetle speeds along the ground. We assume the bug is much smaller than we are, yet its arena of activity is enlarged for us, brought within our sphere of “experience.” Ants jump off a curb. The temptation is to anthropomorphize their activity. They have a sense of urgency and fright, they seem funny. It looks like a sudden maneuver, a quick evacuation. They are brightly lit, and it appears to be night, which adds another element—intrusion on a covert activity taking place under cover of darkness. We don’t know what they are doing, nor can we inhabit their space with the proximity that we have been given in the photograph. They have been greatly enlarged, which is not in itself unusual in photography: we have seen greatly magnified bugs, flowers, germs and cells for years, but usually in a thematic situation involving science or wonder-of-nature esthetics. For the viewer, the ants read primarily as moving bodies, and by the juxtaposition of photographs their activity is joined to other sorts of activity.

Workingmen walk down the street and pass the photographer, who records a situation that includes varying degrees of acknowledgment of the photographer’s own actions. Two teenage girls walk rapidly toward the photographer. This situation is more confrontational, but it is again an instantaneous occurrence. In a third photograph, of a boy’s torso, the movement is self-contained. The boy twists his finger in the hem of his tee-shirt, his action and the interaction of the light along the edge of his arm creating ghostly images of movement. He seems to be posing, to be participating consciously in the photograph.

Walter Benjamin praised the motion picture for its ability “to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action,” observing that, “evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye—if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man.” The photographs of the beetle and the ants are the result of consciously applied optics, but of unconsciously penetrated space—rather than consciously explored space. We know what the elements before us are, but we have never experienced them as they are presented to us here (which is not to say that we haven’t seen other photographs that look like this). The workingmen and the girls are in the same situation the bugs are in, but they appear as more consciously apprehended because they have a certain understanding of what is occurring. Seeing them walking through a space, on their way to somewhere else, we have little chance of gaining insight into anything but their reaction to being photographed. Their image is shaped by the very fact that an image is being made of them without their consent, the record of a flickering confrontation.

The little boy in the tee-shirt, however, is consciously explored in a way that both evokes his movement and records his complicity; part of our response to him is kinesthetic. This photo also has something in it of “the return of the gaze,” a situation necessary for the fullest experience of what Benjamin called the “aura” of an object or person. Only here we have a person-as-object, because it is not his eyes which respond to us, but his torso. Such a communication between object and human being was expressed by Valéry’s description of his dreams: “The things I see, see me just as much as I see them.”

All of Cohen’s photographs exploit photography’s great capacity to record virtually anything instantaneously. It has become a cliché to record insignificance “expressively”—in decrepitude or in seemingly meaningless situations—but Cohen is involved with depicting all of the foregoing in a way that amplifies experience but doesn’t manufacture “art.” His concern with fragile, tenuous perceptions can verge on the romantic ideal which raised common subjects to lofty heights, but more often his photographs stop short of this and instead prod memory or curiosity.

In one work there is the blurred image of a gabled building and striated telephone wires. Only close attention reveals a swarm of tiny flies covering the picture, flies so minute that they almost melt into the grain structure of the photograph, an image of restless haze. Or in another, a jar sits in a plastic bag left on the sidewalk at the corner of a masonry building. The crumpled plastic is draped up and around the jar, and the liquid in the jar and the rumples in the plastic both catch a soft milky light. In a third photograph a woman with a bandage over her eyes stands in a clothing store. She seems to be the only grounded, substantial entity in the photograph. Spots of light fall across the window that we are looking through, and the expressions and stances of the rest of the people in the photograph are as fleeting and distracted as those spots of light.

In his “Short History of Photography” (1931) Benjamin predicted that “the camera will become smaller and smaller, more and more prepared to grasp fleeting, secret images whose shock will bring the mechanism of association in the viewer to a complete halt.” After this stymied perception, Benjamin felt captions would be necessary. His concern was that photography would create a situation where an image was so torn from its context that it was rendered virtually meaningless (a complaint which detractors of photography still register with an absolute conviction of its truth). Benjamin’s prediction has turned out to be fictive. The media, whose destructive power Benjamin also foresaw, have educated as well as undermined our perceptual abilities. The world has been brought to us in a confusion of bits and pieces, but we are quite able to read “parts” of it without feeling reduced, much less completely halted.

In the case of “expressive” photography, part of the meaning of a photograph resides in the photographer’s attitude, but in commercial or journalistic photography other circumstances intervene. The context, as well as the subject matter itself, is of great importance, although individual photographs are presented as thoroughly objective records. In the 1950s Roland Barthes did a brilliant analysis of a photo from the cover of an issue of Paris-Match, showing a young black soldier saluting. He defined the “meaning” of the picture as the image as seen, the soldier with his eyes uplifted, probably gazing at the tricolour. Then he discussed what it signifies to the viewer: that France is a great empire; that all her sons, without racial discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag; that there is no better answer to the disparagers of colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors. The photograph is loaded with “meanings” which are all perceivable to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the viewer. In a similar way one could consider Garry Winogrand’s Women Are Beautiful photographs, which are located in a realm that partakes of both photo-journalism and private vision. Here the traditional, genteel definition of feminine beauty is replaced by an even more loaded set of (male) assumptions about what constitutes desirability in women.

In either of the preceding cases, the viewer perceives a communication in what and how things are photographed. Mark Cohen’s photographs stand away from a meaning defined by concepts either of photographic style or of the world at large. The meaning of his photographs resides in the experience of the photographer himself, and they are so rooted in the sheer visual recognition of experience that they reach for neither transcendence nor critique. In his earlier shows, Cohen created “fleeting, secret images” (Benjamin), literally, with his harshly lit close-ups. At the same time that he was making those images, he was also taking comparatively more banal subjects which have an even more secret and fleeting character to them. Interpretation and association attach themselves to the photographs, but they exist only in an extremely economical way. The jar in the plastic bag is “abandoned,” but it is not the pathos of that situation, the beauty of the light or its respective placement, that constitutes the intention of the photograph. Nothing in particular is emphasized except the perception of an existence. A half-round form raised from a stretch of snow tells us not about the glistening beauty of snow, or the beauty of form itself, or about the strategies of formal composition. Our attention is directed but not predefined.

Certain concerns run through Cohen’s photographs which are not expressed by style but by an individuated way of recording each separate instance. A consistently applied vision is not evident, but a consistently recorded range of perceptions is, which transcends the stylistics of personal vision. Images are not distilled into perfect moments or decisive internal conjunctions, but are reminders of one’s own experience. The conjunctions they are forced into, however, are those which occur through their juxtaposition on a wall. Part of our perception becomes a comparative proposition, rather than the reaffirmation of some particular point of view. In a situation where a nude and a green pepper by Edward Weston are displayed together, we perceive a blanket fastidiousness in the approach to pure form. In Cohen’s photographs, however, because the formal approach varies, we instead perceive a linking of disparate situations. Ants run; men walk; slugs crawl up a wall. They have not been confronted in the same way but they are conceptually joined by the viewer. The prevailing impression is of infinite multiplicity.

To a certain extent, Walter Benjamin’s writing on photography bears the same relation to the medium as it exists today as his passion for collecting did to the past it represented—isolated relics sending solitary flashes of perception into a complicated and fractured present. Mark Cohen’s photographs also leave us with the sense of a whole fabric of perception which is unavailable in its entirety, but which can be pierced by the dislodged fragments of an inquiring vision.

Carol Squiers