New York

Lynne Cohen

49th Parallel

There’s always some more-or-less odd element in the rooms Lynne Cohen photographs. Sometimes these elements are strikingly unusual; for example, in Classroom in a mortuary school, n.d., huge disembodied models of an ear, lips, and a nose hang high on a wood-paneled wall. More often. Cohen photographs things that we might take for granted—stuffed animal heads on the wall above a stairwell, rows of photos of the leaders of an Elks lodge, samples of fake-brick paneling on the wall of a contractor’s showroom. But by depicting these scenes in a cool, deadpan style—evenly lit, in black and white prints from large-format negatives—and without people in them, Cohen takes the objects out of their everyday contexts and underlines their strangeness.

The tactic of framing aspects of the social landscape in order to emphasize their tacky weirdness is a staple of Modernist photography. Cohen’s rooms have a Surrealist resonance, reminiscent of the pregnant stillness of Eugène Atget’s streetscapes—a sense that the interiors themselves are struggling to articulate some obscure secret. Because of the analytical distance of her style, though, the pictures take on a critical, anthropological function as well, examining the way in which architecture is thoroughly inscribed with narrative, even illustrational, meanings by the people who use it. In some cases the interiors are openly didactic, and intended to be easy to read: in an empty ballroom the virtues “Charity,” “Justice,” “Brotherly Love,” and “Fidelity” are emblazoned on the wall in huge script letters. But Cohen’s photographs reveal even the most practical rooms as symbolic. In one, for example, a stubby flight trainer fills up the center of the space, while in another, of a room in the Canadian Emergency Measures Organization Building, Ottawa, a large scale-model map of the city and its surroundings covers the floor.

This notion of maps recurs in a variety of forms—in a blackboard with the outline of Canada painted on it, for example, or the silhouettes of human figures used as targets in a police firing range. Another theme that emerges from the selection of rooms Cohen presents is of the confrontation between man and nature, or in architectural terms, between inside and out. In one room rocks shoulder their way in through the walls; in another ivy spills across the floor.

Cohen’s project is obviously related to Post-Modernist celebrations of vernacular design, as well as to the architectural photographs of Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. But Cohen is concerned not with ennobling the commercial exuberance of Main Street tack, nor with examining the proto-Modernist formalism of found architecture. Instead, she points out how densely symbolic these interiors are, no matter how ordinary they appear. These scenes are texts, suffused with meaning, capable of being read. Cohen’s pictures show how intense is our need to inscribe ourselves and our values on our surroundings, to write the world, the way a bird builds a nest.

Charles Hagen