New York

Mark Cohen

Zabriskie Gallery

Mark Cohen’s photographs from the mid ’70s were gritty, not only in their physical qualities—black and white, grainy, usually shot with a blistering flash—but also in their subjects. Many of Cohen’s best-known pictures from that period are of street life in Wilkes-Barre, the small industrial city in north-eastern Pennsylvania where he lives. But Cohen’s work has never been sociological, even though the people and settings in his photographs—shoppers scurrying down a main street at dusk, teenagers clowning around in a park—are recognizable social types. Instead he relies on a working method and style related to that of Garry Winogrand, in which he frames and shoots his photographs so rapidly that the process of selecting a subject and composing a picture becomes virtually unconscious.

In these photographs Cohen continues to work with this style in places that now include Mexico and New York. As in his earlier work, he uses his gestural, glancing method of shooting to make photographs in which minimal elements in a scene are transformed into central events in formal dramas. The almost obsessive, staring side of Cohen’s work has always been matched by his attention to the lyrical qualities of light and shadow and of texture—qualities that he brings out by the use of flash. That awareness of the luscious properties of photographic form has taken on a new prominence in the work shown here. In a picture taken at night with flash, for example, a plant leaf twists delicately beneath the weight of new snow. Other pictures here are almost Constructivist in their geometry, while retaining the quality of mystery that Cohen gives his subjects—in one, a folded sheet of white paper rests on the sidewalk, at the corner of a building; a shadow divides both the paper and the frame into patterns of interlocking shapes.

Cohen has managed to move away from the aggressiveness of both style and subject that marked his earlier work—in one series of pictures he photographed dogs chained up outside houses, lunging at him with teeth bared—without losing any of the pictures’ immediacy. A few have a gentle beauty, which is saved from excessive sweetness by his increasingly skillful use of flash. In one, he frames the head of a young boy against a corrugated metal paneling, perhaps at a construction site; the flash blitzes the boy’s pale skin and blond hair and glistens off the metal behind him, suffusing the scene with an almost supernatural light.

By working outside of the critical strictures of conscious decision in his shooting, Cohen risks making pictures whose meanings are so personal that they become obscure, not suggestive. Even the most hermetic of his pictures, though, have a feeling of transparency—not of letting us see the world in some original form, without the mediation of the camera, but of being photographs made without the intervention of style.

Charles Hagen