This photobook, Dark Knees, and the accompanying exhibition in Paris at Le Bal, opened my eyes to one of my new favorite photographers, Mark Cohen — a new discovery for me of a man who has been making photographs since the 1960s!
I love the obsessive, cinematic nature of these tightly cropped images that seem too close for comfort, but endlessly fascinating all the same. These are compulsive images, rather than compassionate. But they have the intensity of actually seeing through someone else’s eyes — you see what he notices, you notice what he repeatedly sees — and there is consistency of vision and subject matter decade after decade after decade. There is a celebration of abstract shape and form here, as well as the love of luck and chance. There’s also a strong sense of voyeurism, perhaps a little too strong, but that is a significant factor in the success of these images, too, I think.
The book is beautifully edited by Diane Dufour of Le Bal, and the pairings of images seem perfect and add to the appreciation of the work. The simple titles are printed by hand, making it feel like a very personal photo album of stunningly unique images.
Here is the excellent introduction that accompanied the exhibition:
Mark Cohen was born in 1943 in Wilkes-Barre, a small Pennsylvania mining town. A figure of the street photography genre which dominated American photography in the early 1970s, he is also the inventor of a distinctive photographic language, marked by a fleeting arrangement of lines and, at the same time, an instinctive grasp of the organic, sculptural quality of forms. Two photographs hang opposite each other in his studio: one from Henri Cartier-Bresson's surrealist period and another by Aaron Siskind. The elegant geometry of one and the dry plenitude of the other transpire in the work of Mark Cohen, which John Szarkowski showed at the MoMA as of 1973.
Over the past 40 years Mark Cohen has walked the length and breadth of the streets in and around his hometown, seizing - or rather extracting - fragments of gestures, postures and bodies. In his photos we see headless torsos, smiling children, willing subjects yet still frighteningly vulnerable, thinly sketched limbs and coats worn like protective cloaks. Thus Mark Cohen slices and sculpts the very thick of the world to impose, in successive touches, a Kafkaesque vision, ruthless and poetic, of an environment that encompasses him. A vision from within.
This remarkable body of work - Cohen rarely uses the viewfinder, holding the camera at arm's length - is rooted in impulsions that last just fractions of a second. A disconcerting strangeness emanates from his subjects, some caught in the dazzle of the flash. Bodies seem uncomfortable, threatened, lost, grinning too wildly or reduced to their erotic dimension. Ordinary objects appear isolated, mysterious, sinister. The decline of this small mining town is right there, in its yards, at its bus stops, on its porches, but Mark Cohen's intentions are anything but documentary. Repetitive to the verge of obsession, he has no idea what brought him there or what he hopes to find. Rather he is driven by the beauty of a chance encounter, by the torments or delights he detects in another's substance.
There is, in the brutality of his gaze, a rawness and a nervous energy, an ambivalence and a grace through which the making of a photo becomes the expression of a revelation.
If you treat yourself to just one photobook this season, this is my personal recommendation.
— Jim Casper
To view Casper's other selections please click here.