Mark Cohen's "Dark Knees" in Paris Review

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A Conversation About Mark Cohen’s Dark Knees

Originally published on 7 May 2014 in The Paris Review
by Jason Fulford and Leanne Shapton

Bubblegum, 1975; from Dark Knees (Éditions Xavier Barral, 2013) © Mark Cohen

Dark Knees is a 2013 book that accompanies a recent exhibition of Mark Cohen’s photographs from the 1970s, though it feels more like a cryptic archive of fragments—tightly cropped, mostly black and white pictures of parts of the body and objects on the ground. Cohen was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he’s lived and worked for the last seven decades.

Leanne Shapton and Jason Fulford are the founders of J&L Books.

Jason Fulford: I saw Cohen’s show at Le Bal. It was funny to see photographs of Pennsylvania in Paris. I’d like to meet him. I saw a video of him shooting on the street in 1982. He’s pretty sneaky—getting up really close to somebody and then flashing and moving away fast, no conversation. I think he has a thing for legs and feet.

Leanne Shapton: Girls, legs, midsections, hands.

JF: He cites surrealism as an influence. Body parts. I wouldn’t call them portraits. They’re more like pictures of clothes on people.

LS: I’d like to see that footage of him. Looking at the work, it does feel he’s moving, he sneaking, he’s snatching, and it’s almost like he’s looking out of the corners of his eyes. You don’t feel the fixed point with him—you feel it’s sidelong, that he doesn’t want to engage directly.

JF: I kind of wish I hadn’t seen the video. Have you ever seen footage of Daido Moriyama photographing in Tokyo? He uses a point-and-shoot camera and he’s very casual about it. His arms are hanging down straight with a camera in one hand. He moves through the city like a shark, slowly and methodically, in and out of stores, in and out of malls and alleyways, up and down escalators and stairwells, and his instincts seem honed to know when to shoot from the hip and when he can stop and compose. But he never gets that close to people. Cohen shoots with a wide-angle lens, so when he’s got a close up of a face he’s really only a few inches away. Also, it was a different time—people related to cameras differently. In high school, in the eighties, I used to go to the airport and take pictures of people. You can’t do that so easily now. Security won’t let you, people won’t let you. That’s the striking thing about the video of Cohen shooting—people hardly react to him. 

LS: Do you think these pictures were edited by him then—in the seventies—or now? The feeling I get just turning the pages is that it’s speaking to what we’d appreciate now—not the feeling that I get from, say, those Lee Friedlander books that were shot and published in the seventies and eighties, which feel “of the time.” Always kind of a funny tension when you find old work. Makes me think of Vivian Meier’s stuff—what work she felt was her best and what we think is her best. It makes me want to say to photographers, Publish work now. Don’t wait till you can edit it in retrospect years later.

JF: Cohen would shoot in the day, come home and develop the negatives, make dinner, and then edit the work. He says he’s never gone back to the images he initially rejected. But they’re all sitting there still, in his archive. I’d guess that Diane Dufor, the curator at Le Bal, edited this work with Cohen for the Paris show and for the book. The pictures are titled with simple words or phrases. Sometimes they’re obvious—Three Bare Feet—but then sometimes they make you reconsider the picture—Boy Stands in Front.

To view the rest of the conversation, click here.