Inspiration: Marc Cohen

“For years, Cohen’s approach was to shoot three rolls of film over a two-hour walk, develop the rolls directly, have dinner, then go back to the darkroom, develop eight to nine prints directly from the negatives, and cast aside the rest. Cohen did this several times a week for decades. He estimates he has 600,000-800,000 images that he’s never seen or developed, not even on contact sheets.”

Bare thin arms against aluminum siding

Bare Thin Arms Against Aluminum Siding

Mark Cohen is a street photographer who shoots images from his hip, without looking through the viewfinder. In an article in the Guardian, he describes his methods. He doesn’t carry a camera with him all the time, he goes on specific walks just to take photographs. This used to be in his home town of Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania, but he’s recently moved to Philadelphia, and now he takes trolley rides, “I get on a trolley and go to a specific intersection. I like to go to the same one 10 times, so I understand the texture of the neighbourhood.” His photographs, not surprisingly, are unusually framed, they’re askew and disorienting–not focussed on face and shoulders, but on whatever part of the body he happened to catch.

There’s something beautiful in this discombobulation. The photos of people feel more intimate and specific to one person, because they capture some part of that person nobody would notice, but they also feel like a document of people everywhere at this particular moment in time. They look familiar, like family snap-shots, like people you knew, and in their abstraction they become surprising and new…you see the human form in a different light, as a collection of angles and light and shadows, vulnerable and beautiful.
I love the eccentric ordinariness of this whole process. I love the way it’s described as part of his routine, as natural as making a meal. In describing his career trajectory, from gallery shows in New York in the seventies to relative obscurity (although he has a show in Paris at the moment) he seems more than resigned. As his career waned, he remained as productive as ever, perhaps even more so. ‘Removing himself from the New York scene gave him a “purity,” he says, by virtue of “not having a personality so involved in the dissemination of work.” But by his own admission, he “dropped out” in the late 80s. “Gallerists couldn’t sell my stuff,” he says matter-of-factly. “My work’s not the most optimistic. It’s not like Yosemite.”

In all of these things: his subject matter, his seeming need to take photographs, the fact that he hasn’t developed many of his negatives, or even looked at them, he reminds me of Vivian Maier, another brilliant photographer who had a unique view of the world all around us. They capture time as it passes, they save moments in the lives of strangers and make them into something remarkable–something worth noticing, something worth saving. There’s a feeling almost of melancholy in the works of both photographers, something almost lonely in a glimpse into the life of somebody else. But there’s tenderness and compassion, too: we feel a connection.

(This post first appeared on Out of the Ordinary)

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