JTF (just the facts): A total of 28 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1970 and 1981, with the exception of one image from 2010. Print sizes are either 11×14 or 16×20, and the works on view are a mix of vintage and modern prints. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: It stands to reason that in making a person’s portrait, whether the subject is known to the photographer or not, the closer in the artist gets, the more “intrusive” the picture may ultimately be. Especially in the case of flash-lit, up close faces taken by surprise (think Bruce Gilden), there is definition of private personal space that is often broached, leading to instinctive defensiveness and potential rejection by the sitter. When distance is significantly compressed like this, the camera can become an attacker of sorts, probing where it is not welcome.
But what’s intriguing about this edit of Mark Cohen’s work is that it makes an argument that if the photographer stays away from confrontational attention to faces and instead crops down to anonymous mid-range body parts, the perceived intrusiveness largely vanishes, the pictures becoming exercises in form, texture, and abstraction – there is intimacy and warm personal closeness to be sure, but that feeling of rude invasion is mostly absent. Like Bill Brandt’s 1950s nudes, Cohen’s photographs are all arms, legs, and torsos, and it’s the details of their angles, lines, contrasts of color, and tactile fragments that animate the pictures.
Arms and legs, especially the lithe limbs of children and young healthy adults, provide Cohen the most compositional freedom. Arms pull forward into a Y-shape, extend into a thin doubled triangle (against a striped background of aluminum siding), and drop with interruption, like a third skinny leg. Legs stand spread at a confident angle, crossed in motion on the street, and starkly vertical, with the space in between like a shifting figure/ground study.
Bare collarbones and a variety of shirts provide silky contrasts of skin and cloth. White straps hug necklines, shredded strips lace over dark skin, and zippers, buttons, and hanging chains add decoration to the bends and folds of shoulders. In Cohen’s hands, hair becomes an engrossing subject of its own, from lilting curls and frizzy waves to billowing manes and upside down tendrils. And additional impromptu props offer further compositional options – a dog’s legs that echo jean-clad ones behind, a football that looks positively gargantuan in a boy’s gangly arms, an unruly black cat contrasting against innocent white skin. Time and again, Cohen finds a flash of youth, and then frames it in such a way that we are forced to look closely at the organization of space and the details of bodies and clothing.
Many images go one step further and thoughtfully integrate the background of the street into the formal interplay. A metal security gate echoes the open pattern of a woman’s sleeve. A photobombing hand intrudes over a bubble blower. And everything from bar stools and subway seats to cobblestones and concrete stairs give Cohen opportunities for street-centric textural contrasts, providing context for his cropped bodies.
While this selection of images doesn’t extend our understanding of Cohen’s work much beyond his recent retrospective, there is undeniably a consistency to his vision that comes through clearly in this subset of pictures. There is dirt, and sweat, and everyday grit on these streets, but there is also surprising overlooked grace. The flash of a humble smile, the sheen of sun on human skin, and the gawky uncertainty of a shirtless boy all have the potential for up close empathetic wonder.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $5000 and $14000. Cohen’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years. While prices have ranged from roughly $2000 to $11000, with so few data points, it is hard to chart a reliable history of the actual market for his best work.