New York

Mark Cohen

Light Gallery

If the photograph’s ability to promote myth is photography’s power, Mark Cohen, approaching image-making through the use of fragments, reminds you on the one hand of Degas’ pioneering daring with his objects cut off by the edge of paintings, and on the other of just how much snapshots, with their arbitrary cropping of images, have eroded the significance of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment that decreed no cropping after clicking.

Cropping things and people, but mainly people, Cohen approaches the realm of fragmentation presently associated with the violent cropping of fashion or advertising photography, but with him it’s not just a device, but a way of heightening the psychological implications of his photographs. Most of the forty-odd black-and-white photographs, titled only by location—generally Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania where Cohen photographs commercially—are strikingly, and sometimes violently, cropped. Cropping, by focusing on bits of information, challenges the meanings you associate with wholes. Cohen’s photographs, highlighting bits of people and things against elusive backgrounds, challenge their normal associations. Part of a laughing black woman’s face highlit against a city street; part of a girl’s head cornered in a landscape; part of a back of a head framed by a bus, or part of a dog’s head held by a hand—all have strong psychological undertones elusive to pin down. You get something of the symbiotic relationship of Munch’s The Cry with the “cry” actually affecting the background. Co-hen’s effect is due to the combination of cropping with strong chiaroscuro; but it’s also his choice of subjects with sensual and sexual aura. And it’s the subjects Cohen’s most obsessive about which are the most powerful, like dogs’ heads or girls’ legs. Even if I follow Son-tag’s advice and don’t interpret, the photograph of the leg of a small girl entering a darkened doorway is still one of the most striking in the show. I don’t know why. It’s just mysterious. So it is with a portrait of a black man with a beautiful open-mesh-pattern lace shirt leaning against a closed-mesh-pattern plastic seat; and the hazy picture of the interior of a porno cinema with a handful of isolated occupants sitting in religiously frozen positions, apparently immobilized by the Brobdingnagian sexual parts on the screen; or more humorously, the Wegmanish portrait of a man with a left and right foot not only with reversed shoes but different trousers on each leg—in fact two men sitting close to each other. Diane Arbus comes to mind with some of the other portraits, but not for long. Unlike Cohen’s, Arbus’ figures are complete and centered. Looking straight at the camera, they’re more menacing than sensuous. Whereas Cohen’s people walk, laugh, smoke, hold, and gesture; their frontal challenge to the camera is more sensual than psychic. It’s curious to speculate what disastrous paintings Cohen’s subject matter would probably make, but this leads me to think that apart from creating myths, photography deals with psychological areas with an immediacy impossible to painting.

James Collins