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Interview: Mark Cohen on Frame: A Retrospective

Interview Mark Cohen on Frame: A Retrospective New from University of Texas Press, Frame is the first retrospective from Mark Cohen. Writer and photographer Blake Andrews talked to Cohen about the new book, visual triggers and his recent move from his long-time home of Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia.

Frame. By Mark Cohen.
University of Texas Press, 2015.
New from University of Texas Press, Frame is the first retrospective from Mark Cohen. Featuring color and black & white images, photographs made in the 1960s through to the present, and pictures taken in Paris, London, Mexico City and his own Wilkes-Barre, Frame is a mishmash of the photographer's work, arranged and sequenced by Cohen himself and reflective of his canny and idiosyncratic vision. In her essay for Frame, Jane Livingston describes Cohen like this:
"Combined with Cohen's innate empathy and complexity of understanding is a slightly transgressive streak, seen in his enjoyment of taking people by surprise. Fundamentally classical as is his approach to photography, he wants to surprise not only his photographic subject but also his viewer. And guiding this quest for little jolts of shock is a thoroughly intentional mind."
Writer and photographer Blake Andrews talked to Cohen about the new book, visual triggers and his recent move from his long-time home of Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia.

Blake Andrews:     How did it come Frame come about?

Mark Cohen:     Frame started out as a book about dogs. I have hundreds of pictures of dogs, but then after a conversation with David Hamrick we decided to try to make a much more comprehensive book, one that looks at a thin section of a whole body of work. A retrospective.

Frame. By Mark Cohen. University of Texas Press, 2015.

BA:     Are you generally happy with it, or would you change anything?

MC:     It could not have been done better and the introduction that is written by Jane Livingston goes a long way, further than any before, in explaining my work and process.

BA:     How would you compare it to your recent book Dark Knees?

MC:     Dark Knees was made very spontaneously as a catalog of a show at Le Bal in Paris in 2012. Xavier Barral made this very modern, but non-standard compact book that covers some of the same space but with many fewer pictures, in a smaller flip book type format.

BA:     I understand you sequenced [Frame] yourself. Was there an overriding concept to the flow, or just a rough sense of what followed what? Some of the pairs on facing pages are noticeably matched. But from pair to pair it seems pretty jumbled, and the book itself feels scattered. How intentional was that?

MC:     It is intentionally scattered so as not to try to fix too tight a theory about the work. The first picture of the coal truck and the last picture of the alarmed old guy flashed is intentional and then scattered through are some corresponding pictures that make either formal sense or rebus like sense in a psychological way. It is an autobiographical book. I had no plan when I started taking pictures and still see no complete sense of reason about the wide range of pictures and its possible link to social issues.

BA:     Will the dog book happen?

MC:     The dog book seems less interesting now. It would be a very strong and focused book and probably easier to sell but Frame is about me taking pictures of everything.

BA:     And what about the Mexico book, which you mentioned at the end of Grim Street?

MC:     I think the Mexico book is happening but these things need a lot of alignment.

Frame. By Mark Cohen. University of Texas Press, 2015.

BA:     You say you take pictures of everything, but certain subjects repeat again and again in your photos — cut-off torsos, woolen coats, hand and foot gestures, wires, and probably several other things that escape my notice (dogs?). Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think you set out consciously to shoot those things. Yet you seem drawn to them almost involuntarily, as I think most street photographers react to certain specific visual triggers. Have you thought about what your triggers are and why certain things attract you? Can you explain it in psychology terms? Or some other way?

MC:     The idea of visual triggers is very true. Old wool coats, flesh, as grain in a print. The whole sexual display in the street, a set of possibilities. Invasion of personal space but only very fleetingly. But in the whole book there are outliers, strange pictures that are not part of the 'regular' set of possibilities. I am always trying to see a new thing, a new possibility so I don't keep repeating myself. I look in a lot of backyards. There is a snowscape with a rake. You can't miss it. It is hard to explain.

Why light up a rag in a barren field with a flash? The pictures are not seen until the film is developed. So I can't identify what the motive for any picture is. I am looking around on the street and in my mind moving toward a 16X20 inch print. Then with twenty or thirty of these prints in a room, a gallery, there is a certain psychological impression that is made. The pictures are like Rorschachs in a twice-removed way. A piece of rope and a flashed plastic ring along the side of the road is an exciting visual puzzle. It is eerie and has no meaning. I did not look through the finder, just held the camera down by the rope and took the picture. Then saw the negative and made the print - a found picture, and so surrealistic. I start out with no picture in mind but I do select a place to start the walk. Now in Philadelphia there are a lot more possibilities and some of the most attractive ones are a little dangerous.

BA:     I'm glad you mentioned Philadelphia because I was curious about your move there. Why did you decide to move? How do you like it so far? How has the move affected the photos you make now?

MC:     In Wilkes-Barre the roof was leaking and my wife wanted to move and I did too since I thought I had used all of Northeastern PA up, and to go and live in a city was a shocking step. There is a lot more here but it is tricky to learn to use it. The most degraded parts of the city are quite dangerous to start taking flash pictures at night in. Think about it: this stranger walking around on these streets under the El and just hanging out with a camera, with no credentials, no motive. WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? So I am working on it. I am a little more cautious here in some places. Some people want the camera, want to see the picture, but now there is an airport here and it is easy to get to... etc.

Frame. By Mark Cohen. University of Texas Press, 2015.

BA:     "No credentials. No motive." Not entirely true. But it raises the question: What is your motive? When you are asked "What Are You Doing Here?" what do you say?

MC:     I am fueling an obsession — with Tri-X. There is a certain exciting anticipation in looking at the film coming off the developing reel. So I can't talk about artistic obsession with a guy on the street who feels ripped off and is a little, or a lot, angry, so I try "it's my hobby" and “I'm an old guy” and that can do it but it is much better to know who to avoid but those are the people that I most want to photograph, so it is tricky — much more comfortable with a landscape.

BA:     Who are the people you most you want to photograph? Do they have a particular appearance or mannerism? This question might circle back to the idea of visual triggers. Are there certain types of people who are triggers for you? And if so, who?

MC:     There seem to be people on the very edge of society, in old woolen coats and alone in the city, people who are in some way estranged, so I see a part of them moving along with a paper bag or in an old hotel lobby putting out a cigarette, or a kid seems trapped in a car or in a small yard. When I get close to this situation I am in some sort of transference project and so take a picture of how this exploration is going. I never really want to intrude anywhere but to put the camera in place is the problem. I see a lot of pictures when I don't have a camera with me and am relieved not to have to try to get there.

Frame. By Mark Cohen. University of Texas Press, 2015.

BA:     "Transference Project"? Can you explain?

MC:     Maybe I mean that to see something, someone closely is to empathize with it. I "know" the old guy and the trapped boy. So in making the picture there is some wave-like same frequency that happens, a congruency in the successful result. I am not sure about this. I'm only thinking about it now. Real motives are not easily discovered. I’ve been taking pictures since I was 14. After 50 years in Wilkes-Barre I was making pictures of nails in buildings at the end of the city, so I left.

BA:     That's a slightly different reason for moving than you wrote earlier. So apart from the roof leaking and your wife's feelings, you felt you'd exhausted the possibilities of Wilkes-Barre? 50 years in any place is a long time but in a smaller city I think it might be especially difficult to find surprises. By the time you moved, did you feel your photography had run its course there?

MC:     No. There is an infinite amount in even a small city. I was living in a big house that had a studio and darkroom and archive on the first floor and it was more than I could maintain — an old brick house with a slate roof. So I moved to an apartment in a new city. In Wilkes-Barre I was moving toward smaller and smaller landscapes, the heads of nails in a wall, and making a picture. Look at Morandi, painting the same 6 bottles all his life in one room. It's nice to be by an airport.

Frame. By Mark Cohen. University of Texas Press, 2015.

BA:     I realize there are photographic possibilities everywhere. Like you I'm a visual scavenger. I'm dependent on the world to feed me material. And I know just about any material can suffice in the right hands. But part of being a scavenger too is the sense of exploration, the feeling of optimism that just around the corner might be something new and different and fresh. And that is sometimes a tough mental attitude to keep while in narrow surroundings. I think that's part of my curiosity about you. You made a huge body of work over 50 years in a relatively small geographic region. Sure, Morandi did something similar. Or Strand and Sudek with photography. But I think their working style is different. I wouldn't call them visual scavengers. Scavenging requires fresh visual meat.

MC:     It's pretty complicated to assign a strong clear motive for making a picture.

BA:     I realize it's difficult to assign a clear motive for making a picture. That's what makes the urge interesting.

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  1. Being a street photographer film shooter in Philly since the 70's, I consider that level of aesthetic engagement as shooting visual poems. I always enjoy hearing the critics and photographers talking about making their acts of trapping personal visual significance an amazing mystery or an esoteric endeavor of some sort. They are neither....just an encounter with visual poetry.

  2. Not everyday you get a book published that's not on a particular theme, grand or otherwise. Good to see it's even possible, and that there are those who appreciate its value.