Cohen’s Five Minutes in Mexico is not a traditional Photobook, not exactly. It’s really a gallery catalog, which details the photographs Cohen exhibited at the Sardoni Art Gallery in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1989. I want to review the book here not so much because it is an iconic Photobook, it’s not, but because I want to speak to what a gallery catalogue might contribute to our collections more generally. In doing this, I will also speak to Cohen’s work, more generally, and its place in our understanding of contemporary street photography.
A gallery catalogue (sometimes referred to as an exhibition catalogue) often, but not always, accompanies an art exhibition and is usually printed (published) by the gallery or museum that is showcasing the work. Such publications are most often softcover and are usually priced at little more than cost. Put another way, a gallery catalogue is kind of like a comprehensive “pamphlet” of an exhibit. As a concrete artifact of an ephemeral event, these catalogues can become quite valuable as collectables, making them a low-cost way to collect Photobooks. Of course, you often need to be present at the original exhibit to purchase the books at “low cost”. Additionally, if they are acquired at the opening and the artist is present, you can often get your copy signed. In this way, gallery or exhibition catalogues are an interesting element to add into any larger Photobook collection. Given their relatively low print run and somewhat obscure nature, gallery catalogs can become quite rare, adding more value to their collective nature.
Image credit Mark Cohen
Another useful aspect of exhibition catalogues is their ability to retell the story of a particular exhibition. For example, when we look at Cohen’s Five Minutes in Mexico we see the entire body of work as it was presented at the Sardoni Art Gallery in 1989. We are, then, able to take a “virtual” walk through an exhibit that no longer exists. We can witness (and experience) the works, and how they speak to one another, as intended by the artist in their original exhibit. This contemplation of how works of art speak to each other is an important aspect of studying art. It is not enough to merely judge a work on the basis of how it stands alone, as a one-off, we must also consider how it might fit into a greater whole – the big conversation. This is particularly true if you are working towards a book, exhibit, or another kind of multi-piece art project.
Cohen’s Five Minutes in Mexico is a good exhibition catalog to study. The work presented in this exhibition was quite revolutionary for 1989. After an initial glimpse you might be inclined to disagree with me. Yet, I would remind you to take heed of how emulated Cohen is in present times. This was not the case in 1989. His work was out there – far out there – compared to what was being produced by his contemporaries. Photographs of lightbulbs, stray elbows, and girl knees were not common subjects for fine art or street photography. Worse yet, out-of-focus photographs of empty corners were barely even understood. Cohen was crazy. He was not only asking us to “open our eyes”, he was also demanding that we switch off our common sense.
Image credit Mark Cohen
Mark Cohen is vastly more important to the street photography genre than is commonly acknowledged. His work, especially the early stuff, is not only important in terms of understanding postmodernism in street photography, but it is also crucial to understanding why so much of what we see in contemporary street photography is simply an underwhelming facsimile of what’s been done before. Study and understand Cohen and you will understand why your photograph of some dude’s hat is no longer groundbreaking, or even all that interesting. And, a good way to enter Cohen’s world is to spend Five Minutes in Mexico with him. Enjoy!