Surrealist action photographer?
Something about that sounds strange at first, but that’s how the legendary Mark Cohen describes himself. At first, I found it was hard to imagine what a surrealistic action photographer’s work would look like, but after digging into Cohen’s catalog, it became quite clear. It is bold and it’s amazing.
Who is Mark Cohen?
Mark Cohen, born 1943 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, is a trailblazer in invasive, or as Cohen calls it, intrusive, street photography. Surprisingly, Cohen has made his mark photographing in Wilkes-Barre for most of his life. The city is not large when comparing it to street photography meccas like New York or Paris. With a population of just over 40,000, it’s only the 13th largest in just the state of Pennsylvania. The fact that Cohen developed, honed and practiced his style in a relatively small town is as shocking as his style itself. He did this while owning a studio, shooting portraits and weddings.
But what is it about Cohen’s style that makes it shocking and, ultimately, so memorable?
Like I mentioned previously, Cohen’s style is invasive. Cohen works close. So close, in fact, that it would be uncomfortable for most people on either side of the lens. Like Bruce Gilden, Cohen goes in close and works with his rangefinder and flash. However, Mark Cohen is a different animal to Gilden. Cohen’s photographs often are just fragments. Fragments of bodies. Limbs. Torsos. Bits of expressions. Interplay with geometry. Details of clothing. The surrealist action photographer moniker begins to make total sense.
“It looks very haphazard. It doesn’t look like Ansel Adams,” Cohen has said. “A lot of things going on in those pictures. It’s not some kind of analytical science going on here. It’s right on the edge of meaninglessness. But it’s in there… and that’s what makes it so fascinating.”
Cohen’s work is not just about shock value, though. His images can be sad and disturbing, also playful and humorous. Sexual, as well. But even though Cohen doesn’t consider himself a documentary photographer, he is… to a degree. Some of his work isn’t as fragmented, giving us a view of life in this coal-country city and it’s surrounding towns that have been through economic hard times.
Mark Cohen, who has moved to Philadelphia after living in Wilkes-Barre for 69 years, had his first exhibition at the Museum Of Modern Art in 1973. “Frame: A Retrospective“, is to be published this fall by the University Of Texas Press.
So how did he influence me?
Mark Cohen’s work is inspiring on two levels. The image itself. The artistic quality, whether it be intentional, or unintentional is undeniable. However, the intensity of the images is also inspiring. The intensity is because of the proximity. The intensity in the way Cohen puts himself into the image without being seen. If there’s such a thing as bravery in what we call street photography, Cohen has it.
Like I mentioned above, some of the surrealistic, artistic quality in Cohen’s images is unintentional. And that is a wonderful by-product of the manner in which Cohen works. Incredibly, videos of Mark Cohen at work show him shooting mostly without using the viewfinder. It’s shooting from the hip, but only in name. He shoots at arm’s length and from any angle. Straight on. From a crouch. From above. And the subject isn’t the only thing at arm’s length. The camera itself is at arm’s length from Cohen. While Cohen may be focusing on one aspect, say a leg or a stocking, he almost miraculously catches other bits of imagery that make the photograph more intriguing. A shadow. An angle. Something that Cohen wasn’t intending to help “make” the photograph. A happy accident.
“A tremendous amount of my work relies on chance,” Cohen has said. But really it’s more than leaving it up to chance. More than gambling on taking a shot and hoping for the best. More than wandering the streets waiting for a shot to appear. It’s the fact that he has the bravery to take the shot that’s really inspiring.
I don’t think I would every try to duplicate or experiment with Cohen’s style, but that’s because of my own “code” when shooting in the street. I don’t like my immediate airspace being invaded, and I respect others. I reckon that buffer zone is is about five feet, maybe a little less. Cohen has said he’s been confronted and even swung at on numerous occasions. He’s even since moved to 50mm lens so he doesn’t have to get so close. However, Cohen does inspire me to evolve as a photographer. Or maybe it’s devolve. Change. Mutate. Experiment. Leave a little more to chance instead of “seeing too hard” and forcing a shot. Most importantly, his work inspires me to be brave in taking chances. What chances? That remains to be seen, but it starts with challenging one’s self. Fueling the drive that pushed me to experiment with street photography in the first place.
Viewing Cohen’s photography and watching him work reminds of the British SAS motto, Who Dares Wins. Daring myself as a photographer, that’s a great idea. Be driven, just like Cohen himself says.
“The most important thing is to go and make new pictures. The pictures you already took, you already took those pictures. My main drive is to do something new, to make some new kind of picture.”