Ten Questions for Mark Cohen
For StreetPhotography.com Exclusive
By Michael Ernest Sweet
If you’re a street photographer and you don’t know of Mark Cohen, be a little bit ashamed. Just a smidge. He’s a true unique and immensely important to the development of twentieth-century American street photography. Cohen was one of the very first to work up close to his subjects, often filling an entire frame with just an ankle or an elbow. Cohen, like his contemporary, the late Garry Winogrand, is obsessed with seeing how things look when photographed – what can the camera show us that our eyes cannot?
Copyright ⓒ Mark Cohen
1) Why you? Why did you get chosen for a lifetime behind the camera?
“What we see is not made of what we see, but of what we are.” Fernando Pessoa
2) Street photography is experiencing a lot of popularity today. How were things in the 70s? Did you guys refer to yourselves as street photographers?
I never met with any group of photographers. I took a course in about 1968 with Ken Heyman at the School of Visual Arts and he was impressed with my pictures enough to suggest I show them at MoMA. I knew work from books from the time of Kertesz forward and many others at that time. Then the Leica time; the small cameras. The end of the tripod. The possibility of closeness and motion on the street [became possible]. Faster and faster film speeds [too]. An extreme type of trespass into a person’s personal space was necessary to fill a frame with an elbow.
But you are imagining the ‘street photographers’ as if they all got together at the Cedar Tavern or the Dome in 1926. Popular Photography and Modern Photography was on every newsstand. I aimed my work at those magazine annuals. There is no clubhouse, maybe it’s in Arles.
3) When you look back over a lifetime of photography, what about it most satisfies you?
I think I am most calm and moved by a new print. I start to look for it as soon as the film is fixed. A 36 exposure roll of tri-x. It is like today’s glass plates. I am surprised by the negatives of pictures that I forgot that I might have taken only hours ago and these are accidental exposures. It is all chance.
Copyright ⓒ Mark Cohen
4) Much of your work is known for its “fragments” of people. How did you come about this style?
I fell into that because of the psychological stimulation of the closeness on the street with the wide lenses. Bill Brandt did a similar thing on the pebble beach, but it was very contrived and mine were right out of my life. I would wade into a group of people emerging from a bus on public square. I might see a pin on a lapel and see what would happen on the film if I got very close to it.
5) This photograph of the pillow, which you just made in 2018, explain to me why it was worthy of a frame of film for you. Many might say there is nothing here.
There is a lot there. It is a picture of homelessness, but it is packaged as a formalist picture – like a rothko or a mondrian, so the picture works back and forth across the range of meaning. It is very good. A new picture. If you hold a print of it or see it on a page it has a physicality that passes what you might see on a screen. The grain of the film across the frame is very wonderful and the man has disappeared. I am seeing the end as a silver print.
Copyright ⓒ Mark Cohen
6) You photographed in Wilkes-Barre for much of your career. Wilkes-Barre is not an especially huge city. Do you think you could do the same kind of photography today in such a small place?
I am 50 years past that time and in a new city now. So it takes me time to ‘see’ it right. Here I am still experimenting and trying sometimes to make a new picture.
7) In the thick of it, how many hours a day would you spend photographing on the street? Tell us a little bit more about a “typical day” on the street in Wilkes-Barre in the 70s.
I would take 3 36 exposure rolls and then develop them and then usually make about 8 16X20 prints that night. [I’d do this] three or four times a week.
8) What do you think about the street photography you see today? Is there any up and coming young photographer that you especially enjoy?
I think there is a lot of uncertainty about what is street photography. I took pictures in alleys, which is much different and also in backyards and this is different too. When you are out on Fifth Ave it is very safe and set-like. Hundreds of people around, but if you walk down some small street in the evening and your subject is a stranger and [you are] alone, that is a different thing. An atmosphere is created that is like a flux that you work in…. the picture of the pillow is a sidewalk photograph and in this flux of despair, but I took pictures like that in the 1970’s too. Eggleston is almost a street photographer, but he seems to know many of the people in the pictures. So, I am not in touch with STREET PHOTOGRAPHY TODAY.
9) If you were to do it all over again, would you change anything?
I would make a better set of contact prints so as to see the whole work more easily and find the negatives more quickly.
10) One piece of advice for those younger photographers today who are eager to relive your career?
Look at all the Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, John Gutmann, Dorothea Lange, Sergio Larrain, Garry Winogrand, Roger Mayne, and Helen Levitt pictures, and then try to do that. Start by not reinventing the wheel.
Mark Cohen (1943) is an American photographer best known for his innovative close-up street photography. Cohen had a solo exhibition at MoMa when he was only thirty years old. Two years later he would be awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. Cohen’s best known books are Grim Street and True Color. Cohen is still at work on the streets of Philadelphia.
Michael Ernest Sweet is a Canadian photographer and author of two books of street photography, The Human Fragment and Michael Sweet’s Coney Island, both available from Brooklyn Arts Press. Follow on Instagram @mesweetphotos.
Street Photography.com is Immensely Grateful to Mark Cohen & Michael Ernest Sweet for this Exclusive interview.
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF MARK COHEN