Martin Parr and his 12,000 Books

 

Collecting with the FT: Martin Parr

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March 14, 2014 1:23 pm

By Liz Jobey

“Just look a little bit . . . happier.” It’s hard not to be amused by the hopeful upturn at the end of the sentence. Eva Vermandel is trying to take a portrait of Martin Parr, at home in Bristol, surrounded by his book collection. It’s not easy: partly because he looks so sceptical; partly because he keeps opening books up on the floor to show us, and so she has to keep asking him to stand up. After David Bailey, Parr is probably the best-known living photographer in Britain. His reputation derives from his candid pictures of others but he is also a dedicated exponent of the selfie – he may even have invented the term. His collection of self-portraits, taken in photo booths and studios all around the world, began long before the mobile phone camera was invented.

“You probably have to be an obsessive person to collect,” he concedes, “if you are going to do it seriously and thoroughly, which I attempt to do.”

We are here to talk about his books but Parr collects pretty much everything, from Chinese Mao-era tea caddies to miniature televisions, commemorative plates to cigarette cases decorated with Soviet space-dogs: “Yes, Laika, Strelka and Belka, they’re the three most famous . . .” That’s before you get to his print collection, some of which is in evidence on the walls as he leads us downstairs to the basement.

“China and Latin America down here,” he says, “well, some of China . . .” We go into a small room stacked with boxes and lined with shelves of books. “There’s Japan, but just propaganda, here . . . and Latin America overspill.” It’s too tight for three, so we go next door, where a cabinet holds some of his novelty watch collection. He points to a watch-face decorated with portraits of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his father Hafez. “Very rare, the Assad material.”

“Where did you get it?”

“eBay.”

Parr is in his early sixties and, alongside his reputation as a photographer, his most enduring legacy is likely to be the 12,000 photography books he has collected over the past 35 years. What began as a hobby has developed into a mission to change the way the history of photography is defined and understood.

Parr began collecting photobooks as a student at Manchester Polytechnic. As a collector, he has discovered, documented and promoted previously unknown areas of photographic bookmaking. Japan is a good example: until the 1980s, the Japanese photobook was a specialist area, reserved for a few maverick enthusiasts, historians and collectors. Parr is quick to acknowledge them but, once he discovered what was there, it was his own proseletysing that brought the Japanese books to the fore. “The main thing I’ve learnt,” he says, “is how lazy and narrow-minded our histories of photography have been, and how, with some investment and some application, there is so much to discover.”

His collection is not comprehensive. “I get sent a lot of books – I get sent a lot of bad books,” he says. “If I don’t want a book, I’ll give it away. But I also get sent some fantastic things.”

He has bought books ever since he was a student at Manchester Polytechnic in the early 1970s but he dates the beginning of his serious collecting to the late 1980s, “when I bought the original Robert Frank Les Américains, and The English at Home by Bill Brandt – some of the classics. As I started to earn more money, I got more hooked and, having cash from my relatively successful magazine and commercial career . . . You know, this is an expensive business.” A look on AbeBooks.com gives an idea of current prices: Les Américains (1958) at between $3,000 and $5,000 – a signed copy is $10,000. A first edition of The English at Home (1936) is around £300 to £400.

When I ask if he has estimated the value of the collection, he says, “I haven’t. But I know it would be substantial.” His critics are quick to point out that, in being one of its generators, he has also been one of the chief beneficiaries of the growing interest in photography books and the steep rise in prices. Isn’t he now competing in a bull market he has helped to create?

“Yes,” he says, “but, remember, I’m looking for things before anyone else is looking for them. That’s what’s happened in China. When people see what we’ve dug up from China, they are absolutely bog-eyed.”

In 2004, he published the first of two, soon to be three, volumes of The Photobook: A History, an edited selection of his collection, illustrated with layouts from each volume, written by his friend and collaborator, the photo-historian Gerry Badger. Initially pored over by photography fans, dealers and collectors, the volumes quickly became the handbook for auction houses, which often had little else to quote by way of provenance for a photographer’s work. Since then, the selective listing by Parr and Badger has encouraged an insider market among collectors, publishers and photographers, since inclusion in the history brings kudos to both publisher and photographer’s reputation and almost guarantees an eventual hike in the resale value.

In his study, a large print by his friend Chris Killip hangs over his desk. This is where he keeps his most recent acquisitions. He has “correspondents” in various countries who help find books, and a range of dealers who offer him things he might want. He believes that China is the last country with a true hidden history of photographic publishing. “The other candidate in Europe is Italy. I’ve just come back from a trip and I’ve got many books from the Italian fascist period.

“Now, let me show you . . .” He hands me a stapled pamphlet, badly printed in black and white. “Emmett Till – this is the first civil rights book ever . . . look, price $1, the first, and a factual photo story.” It covers the trial of two white racists from Mississippi who murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till, a black boy from Chicago, for flirting with a white girl. “Took me a long time to find that,” he says. “I had to spend £7,000 on it. And I’ve never seen one since.”

What does he want to happen to the collection? Where does he want it to end up? “Eventually I want it to go into a public collection, to be looked after and be used as a research tool. That’s the whole point really. There is no particularly good photographic book collection in the public domain in the UK.”

So if a private individual were to offer you a great deal of money? “I would decline,” he says immediately. “It’s not about the money.”

Of the possible venues – the V&A, the British Library, the Tate – he nods at the last one. “Well yes, it’s my preferred venue,” he says. “I’m in discussion with them, but nothing has been determined.”

Simon Baker, the Tate’s curator of photography, says: “Clearly, Tate is supportive. The photobook is absolutely at the heart of the history of photography. In our exhibitions, we place books in the gallery alongside prints. We’ve already put our marker down.” And anyway, he adds: “Whichever institution gets it, they will have the greatest photobook collection in the world.”

“The Photobook: A History Volume III” by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger is published by Phaidon on March 17. The authors will be speaking at Photobook Bristol, June 6-8. www.photobookbristol.com

 Click here to read the article in its entirety click here.

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Read more.. Saturday, March 15th, 2014

Leica Turns 100

As the world’s original mobile camera celebrates its centenary, top Guardian photographers send their birthday messages to the little black box that changed their world.

Henri Cartier-Bresson with his trusty Leica in 1957. Photograph: Jane Bown

Eamonn McCabe

Now that we all carry cameraphones in our pockets, it’s hard to imagine that the biggest breakthrough in photography actually happened back in 1914 – when Oskar Barnack invented the Leica.

Suddenly, photographers could throw away their heavy tripods and exploding flashguns, and step out of their studios to walk the streets and take photographs with this new mobile camera.

Barnack, a German optical engineer who specialised in microscope research, was also a keen amateur photographer, but his health was poor and he couldn’t carry the heavy cameras of the time. He quickly turned his prototype Ur-Leica into a lasting success. By 1932, there were 90,000 cameras. By 1961, a million cameras were in use.

William Eggleston, Untitled, 1970-1973 [From Chromes] Photograph: courtesy of The Eggleston Artistic Trust.
This image is currently on show at Tate Modern


Anyone who is anyone in photography has used the “miniature miracle”, as it was known at the time – from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Robert Capa, Magnum’s great war photographer. More recently, Sebastião Selgado used his Leica to shoot an extraordinary series of images of Brazilian gold mines. William Eggleston, known for his large-scale colour-saturated prints of everyday life, is an obsessive collector: he has more than 300 Leicas and has shot most of his negatives, now numbering some 1.5m, on them. He keeps them all in customised leather cases. How does he ever choose which one to use?

Bruce Davidson, another Magnum photographer, has always used Leica cameras: “For me, the things that define the Leica mystique are that it’s small, it’s relatively light, it’s quiet and unobtrusive and they don’t look like cameras,” he said in an interview on Leica’s blog. “For example, right now I’m thinking about doing something where I want to walk around the streets. I want to be very invisible and not aggressive in any way. That means quiet, and that means Leica.”

People who own them swear by them. Some have their Leicas locked up in bank vaults and many watch the value of their cameras soar as photographers become disillusioned with digital photography.

Milestones in their development include the rangefinder cameras like the legendary Leica M3 (in 1954) and the M6 (in 1984), a Fleet Street favourite. At the same time, Leica lenses were beginning to be known as some of the sharpest lenses around and Leica binoculars were also wowing the world.

The R-System, an SLR camera that many Leica M users never came around to, kicked off in 1976 with the Leica R3 – their first electronic camera. In the late 1980s, they introduced their first point-and-shoot model first digital camera, the Leica Digilux.

Leica has become photography’s badge of style – though not everyone knows how to use them properly. As Mr Holve, a camera blogger, told the New York Times, Leica aficionados can be divided into two groups: shooters and carriers. “Carrying a Leica around can be a little like driving a Bentley,” Mr Holve said. “Just because you can afford it, doesn’t mean you’re a good driver.”

Rudolf Nureyev, 1981 Photograph: Denis Thorpe for the Guardian

Denis Thorpe

My firm favourite is the M2. It’s so quiet, so beautiful and the rangefinder is so precise. I have traded many cameras over the years, but I would never give up my M2. If I was sent to a desert island I would take it with me – provided I could get some film and paper.

I could never afford a black Leica, so I bought a silver one and covered it in black tape. Nobody could see it, and nobody could hear when I took pictures. I took the Nureyev photograph on it, one of my favourites.

Sean Smith

I used the Leica M series for everything, from the late 80s up to the early 2000s, when everyone working for news media had to ditch film. At that time, Leica were not making a suitable digital camera. Its future looked set to be as an exquisite accessory for the mega-rich (it was owned by Hermès for a while), among them the Queen, who is a longtime owner – and doubtless has an exceptional archive of the “upstairs-downstairs” life of grand houses.

In the last few years, at last, Leica have made up for lost time. With the new M Type 240, it has produced a camera that could be as revolutionary for documentary video as its first camera was for still photography.

What makes the new Leica so special is that the rangefinder gives the intimacy of a small camera, but you also get its legendary lenses. I think a new kind of journalistic video will be able to take a very large step forward thanks to the M type 240, and the new video function on this camera could be as important as those early Leicas.

I’m not sure how the traditional telegram of congratulations will be delivered to Leica on its 100th birthday – but it’s not far to Leica’s Mayfair offices from the Mall.

This article originally appeared in the Guardian and features ROSEGALLERY artists William Eggleston and Bruce Davidson. To view the article in it’s original context, click here.

Read more.. Friday, January 31st, 2014

Lise Sarfati: Post-Factum Exhibition at LACMA

Artist Lise Sarfati captured the homes of writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras (1914–1996) only days after her death. (Duras was aligned with the French subjective-documentary style of filmmaking pioneered by Agnès Varda, subject of the exhibition Agnès Varda in Californialand.) Duras lived primarily in central Paris, but also had a house outside the city in Neauphle-le-Château. The imagery of both locations appears as if Duras has just left—windows ajar, bed linens turned back, faucet dripping. Presented in its totality, this sequenced portfolio reads cinematically. Sarfati’s approach is elusive—a cinematic poem hinting at a life well-lived, and one without a clear beginning, middle, or end. Her images are satisfyingly incomplete. The portfolio title, Post-Factum, taken from the Latin for “after the fact,” becomes a most fitting tribute to Duras.

printed 2007, Fuji Crystal Archive print, 13x16 in.

To view Sarfati’s exhibition at LACMA, click here

Read more.. Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

Mark Cohen's 'Dark Knees' Best Photobook of 2013 by Lensculture

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.

Read more.. Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Wayne Lawrence Selected in Best of Miami by V Magazine

We are proud to share that V Magazine has selected Wayne Lawrence’s Cinnamon, on view at the ROSEGALLERY booth at PULSE Miami, as a fair highlight in their latest Miami dispatch.

To read the article, please click here.

Read more.. Thursday, December 12th, 2013

John Chiara Honored by his Alma Mater CCA

For Bay Area native John Chiara (MFA 2004), who is preparing to create a series of photographs in and of New York, swapping the Bay Area for the Big Apple presents a few challenges.

The issue is not at all about tackling New York’s art scene; having had 2013 shows at Pier 24 Photography and the de Young in San Francisco, as well as at galleries in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Zurich, it’s clear that he is already coming into focus for an increasing audience worldwide.

Take a virtual walk-through of the Pier 24 show with Chiara’s work »

Rather, New York will be a challenge in terms of the subject matter it offers up, given that until now Northern California has been such a looming presence in Chiara’s work. The Bay Area infuses the photography of this San Francisco-born artist like the terroir of a vintage bottle of Saint-Emilion.

Working throughout the Bay Area, Chiara takes large photographs — as big as 50 by 80 inches, to be specific — using a massive, custom, hand-built camera that he transports on its own trailer.

Once he’s selected a location, he situates and then physically enters the camera, placing positive color photographic paper on its back wall, then using his hands to burn and dodge the image by manipulating the light coming in the lens.

The paper is then developed by spinning the drum, which agitates chemicals over the photographic paper. The process often leaves irregularities on the picture, and each picture is necessarily one of a kind, since the process involves neither film nor negatives.

Given the painstaking, manual method, progress is steady and measured. Currently, he is having another camera built in preparation for his project in New York.

Watch a KQED Spark video feature on Chiara’s process »

John Chiara, “21st at Kansas,” 2004
50 x 63 in.
Unique photograph on Cibachrome paper

Finding His Artist’s — and Teacher’s — Voice

After graduating from the University of Utah in 1995 with a BFA in photography, Chiara found it a challenge to support his artwork financially. He had a succession of jobs, from graphic design to substitute teaching (K-12), running a screenprinting business, and web development for real estate firms.

“When I graduated,” he says, “there were two jobs I swore I’d never do: work in a Joe Schmo photography lab and teach high school.” Not only has he served his time in a photo lab (“a real sweatshop,” he laughs), but also he now teaches part-time at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco.

“I love that school,” he says. “It’s one of the best places in the city. I teach photography and sculpture. There are seven or eight kids in each class, so I feel I can really have an effect.”

Chiara credits his teaching skills to his mentors at CCA: Larry Sultan, Richard Misrach, and Susan Ciriclio.

“Susan gave me really practical advice: how to format a professional teaching résumé, how to develop a teaching philosophy. She also championed programs in which grads could co-teach, which hugely improved my ability to support myself.”

Ciriclio played a part in Chiara’s education even before he got to CCA. “I started applying in 1995, although I wasn’t accepted until 2002,” he recalls. “And even before I ever arrived, Susan was helping me. We talked about my process, about Cibachrome printing and drum processing. She gave me the technical information I needed to grow as a photographer.”

Advice from Larry Sultan

Nearly a decade out from his MFA, as he starts to see wider success with his photography, Chiara continues to draw on advice he was given at CCA.

“This year I sold some work. It’s the first time I’ve hired people. It’s the first time I’ve made some money. And I remembered something Larry Sultan told me: ‘When you make money from your art, invest right back into it.’ So when I heard that the manufacturers of Ilfochrome paper were discontinuing it, I bought what I hope is a lifetime supply, plus a freezer to store the paper at minus-20 degrees. I’m definitely committed to working this way.”

Sultan also played a critical role in Chiara’s evolution as an artist. In 2003, his photography featured jagged elements on the surface of the paper. “There was a lot of psychological disruption to the image. I felt it was meaningful to the state I was in. It was a difficult time for me — I was dealing with a lot of stuff, working too hard running my business.

“Larry recognized the sense of controlled chaos in my work, and told me the control had gone too far. My hands were in it too much. So I started to find elements in the landscape that would disrupt the field of view. I became more of a photographer.

“Larry Sultan was the most articulate, intuitive professor. Almost shamanistic, at times. He had hyper-intuition; he’d be looking at your work and get totally under the surface of it, and then articulate his reactions so clearly.”

Bay Area Roots

Chiara was born in San Francisco and grew up in the hills near Concord and Walnut Creek. As a youth, he found himself drawn to early photographers of Northern California such as Carleton Watkins, who used an oversize camera and huge glass-plate negatives.

Chiara’s work combines much of that sensibility with an appreciation for the imperfections of the medium: hazy light, uneven exposures.

This past year, Chiara’s geographical focus opened up. Over six months he made a series of trips to Southern California, commissioned by Rose Shoshana of Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, and subsequently showed them at her gallery. “L.A. is fascinating,” says Chiara. “And for my work, it wasn’t a stretch at all.”

He has also spent time recently in a different kind of art hotspot: Clarksdale, Mississippi. “That idea came from Rose Shoshana too. I really trust her, and she told me, ‘I think your work would really sparkle there.’ She set the whole thing up. It was kind of magical. And incredibly hot! It’s so different because it’s flat farmland. And it’s all green. Everything’s green.”

Upcoming Solo Show

Wherever he sets his lens, from Contra Costa County to Clarksdale, from the East Bay to the East Coast, John Chiara continues to develop. You can see his work here in San Francisco in his upcoming March 2014 solo show at Haines Gallery.

Please click here to be directed to the CCA website.

Read more.. Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Wayne Lawrence's 'Orchard Beach: Bronx Riviera' Reviewed in ASX

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera
By Peter Baker, for ASX, November 2013

In Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize winning classic The Power Broker: Robert Moses and The Fall of New York (Vintage Books 1974) he describes Orchard Beach, a 1.1 mile stretch of sand that Moses himself had imported to the Bronx from Sandy Hook and Rockaway, as resting “here, in New York’s northeastern corner, so far from any built-up areas in 1934 that visitors could hardly believe they were still within the borders of America’s largest city.” Eighty years later we’ve seen the Bronx built-up, burnt down, abandoned, and later reclaimed, by an array of immigrants and a new generation born in the only borough on the American mainland. And yet, as a native Bronxite myself, I’m willing to bet the vast majority of New Yorkers, certainly those living in Manhattan or Brooklyn today, would have the same reaction as those who visited Orchard Beach in 1934: We’re still in New York City?

Earlier this month, in what was the least suspenseful election in recent memory, Bill de Blasio was named the next mayor of Gotham. Suddenly his campaign slogan, which pleads that this is “A Tale of Two Cities,” the rich and everyone else, has become populist sentiment. Rest assured, the rich are always safe in their unambiguous category. It’s the everyone else that gets complicated, embodying a thousand shades of color and a multiplex of micro economies. As the city changes and gentrification implodes, its no secret that the habitable space of the city is shrinking for average families. One thing is certain for now: The Bronx belongs to the working people of New York. And for the 1.3 million who call the borough home, they take the Bx12 bus across the Pelham Parkway, or drive to the sprawling 8,000 car parking lot, and arrive at their cramped yet beloved Riviera at Orchard Beach.

The Bronx is now considered the most diverse area in the United States and the only borough of the city with a Latino majority. The beach’s popularity should come as no surprise considering the thousands of Bronxites who come from the islands and shores of the Caribbean. In his new book Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera, photographer Wayne Lawrence points his lens toward New Yorkers who flee the grid of sweltering streets for this modest but sacred summer haven on the Long Island Sound. Lawrence, who migrated to New York from the West Indies island of Saint Kitts, was drawn to the underdog status of the Bronx and sees the people at Orchard Beach as “children of survivors who went through that period in the Bronx and somehow made it.” Lawrence’s book serves as a kind of high quality, all-inclusive yearbook, representing the various denizens of Orchard. The subjects participate in the making of the portrait, in a straightforward style that brings to mind Avedon or Arbus. As for the pictures themselves, they succeed or fall flat based on the level of individuality expressed by the particular subject. The inevitable problem with this process of portrait making, i.e. asking a person to stand in front of a large format camera at eye length and stare into the lens, is an apparent passivity from the subject, as a result of simply doing what the photographer has asked them to do, which isn’t much. The hope is that somehow something profound will transmit from this exchange. The least effective pictures, however, merely look like the person is thinking about having their picture taken.

In such projects we hear about the photographer’s desire to convey the dignity of a people, an admirable gesture no doubt, and a familiar note in the history of photography. But, more often than not such amicable attempts wind up being reductive or sentimental. As Geoff Dyer writes of Dorothea Lange “[She] was all the time keen to discover and represent people’s dignity. As became the case with Paul Strand, the danger of this approach is that people can be reduced to their dignity.” In the strongest pictures, and there are many in Lawrence’s book, there is a kind of resistance and attitude from the individual, who while consenting to the photographer, still pushes back with a sense of self that overwhelms the process. In this case the most engaging pictures by far happen to be of women. We see the women of Wayne Lawrence’s Orchard Beach represented with more distinctiveness and intrigue. The beach of course prompts sexuality, but it’s the combination of toughness and vulnerability that makes the pictures of women memorable. Gestures and stances vary, and the viewer is invited to eye the details of the body, the fierce assortment of swimsuits and jewelry, tattoos that read like proverbs, and the multifarious shades of skin basking in the mixed light.

To read the article at ASX, please click here.

Read more.. Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Abelardo Morell Opening at ROSEGALLERY

Here are a few photos from our opening night with Abelardo Morell and his exhibition at ROSEGALLERY. Congratulations to Abe and all of his success.

Abelardo Morell speaking about his work with ROSEGALLERY guests.

Manfred Muller Laughing in Gallery

ROSEGALLERY artist Manfred Müller speaking with old friends.

Abe discusses with ROSEGALLERY guest, his Camera Obscura of the Brooklyn Bridge.

ROSEGALLERY associate Kelsey Shell with ROSEGALLERY guests.

Abe Morell discussing his tent image of Old Faithful with ROSEGALLERY guest.

Rose Shoshana and Abe speaking with ROSEGALLERY guests.

Read more.. Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Mark Cohen Featured in Republican Herald

Wilkes-Barre Photographer Has Gained International Recognition

By Nancy Honicker

When I was a kid living on Greenwood Hill in Pottsville, we staged a Tom Thumb wedding at the local playground. Everyone got involved, even the bullies, decked out in their Sunday best. We girls wore frilly dresses and plastic hair bands with veils attached. In the empty lot that was our playground, we lined up for photographs and a few days later, there we were, on display in The Pottsville Republican.

I still have that photo, I can still name the kids huddled around the bride, and, what strikes me is how dusty we were. Despite our finery, despite our efforts to look our best, our patent leather Mary Janes had lost their sheen and the boys’ oxfords looked shabby and gray. It wasn’t our fault. We had done our best, but the playground was no more than coal dirt and every step we took stirred up a cloud of dust.

Playing baseball, when we slid into base, we blackened our pants and sneakers. Wearing shorts, we darkened our bare knees. Blackened sneakers, dark knees, the stuff of summers spent on coal banks and coal dirt lots.

I’ve just been to a photography exhibit in Paris bearing that name – “Dark Knees.” The photographer, a pioneer of street photography with an international reputation, is from Wilkes-Barre. His name is Mark Cohen and for more than 50 years, night after night, after days spent in a commercial photography studio, he has tracked pictures, an affair of choice and chance, in the streets of Wilkes-Barre, Scranton and towns in between.

I did not know Mark Cohen’s work and I discovered him listening to the radio, listening to an announcer struggle in French with the pronunciation of “Wilkes-Barre,” as I asked myself if he was really talking about the Wilkes-Barre I know.

Listening more closely, I learned that a photographer from that town was showing his work at “Le Bal,” an exhibition space in Paris devoted to photography. Checking out the information on the web, I promptly got on the metro and went to see the show.

There, against blood-red walls, I discovered a continuous line of 16-by-20 photographs, mostly black and white, traveling across the four walls of a large underground exhibition space. I did not discover Wilkes-Barre or the coal region: no breakers, no strip mines, no deserted downtown that had once seen better days. There was nothing that deliberately drew attention to a specific time or place. There weren’t even people, at least not people posing, composed faces, bodies shot from head to toe.

From Dark Knees

Instead, there are fragments: a coat collar, a pearled eyeglass chain, a chin, a brooch, two calves wrapped in rayon knee socks, two feet wearing leather buckle shoes. Sometimes there is only a forehead, a hairline, bodies without head or feet, hands folded in the lap of a girl wearing cut-off jeans, a bare bony torso, dark knees against a background of vacant lots and clapboard houses, with a stairway leading to paradise…

There are also still lifes: the tops of unlaced boots, a string of outdoor lights, tomatoes ripening on an old wooden table in somebody’s backyard.

These fragments, these photos, often beautiful and shot through with a disturbing grace, are not restful. Cohen’s exhibition is not restful. Truncated bodies, defiant or frightened eyes, a fist slammed against a car window with the photographer inside, connote aggression and this notion is inherent to his technique and work.

Cohen has defined himself as a “trigger-happy gunslinger” and he has called his way of taking photos “grab shots.”

Working for 35 years as a commercial photographer, when he closed shop each day, he began a second life, becoming a different person from the man “doing” weddings or annual reports.

At nightfall, he set out, a stalker of sorts, with three rolls of film, a lightweight camera and a flash, entering a world filled with pictures, out there waiting for him. What was necessary, as much as style and technique, was the courage to make the “grab.”

Walking through the streets of Wilkes-Barre, Cohen, like a gunslinger, shot from the hip, camera in one hand, flash in the other. Constantly on the move but using a wide-angle lens, he had to get close to people, dangerously close at times, confronting raised fists, threats, insults and run-ins with the police. Approaching his subjects, according himself “artistic license” to burst into their lives, Cohen “flashed” them, grabbing the picture and then, just as quickly, merging back into the flow of street life.

Returning to his studio after having shot more than 100 photos, he might make no more than eight prints. In many of the shots, choice and accident did not mesh-or the picture he envisioned did not take off once he captured it within the rectangle that is his signature format, one he never crops.

The next night, he was back in the street, following instinct, believing chance, luck, fate, call it what you will, would deliver new treasures, fragments of himself as much as of the place where he anchored his work.

Night after night, Cohen forayed into the streets of Wilkes-Barre, fueled by a shot of adrenaline and the desire to delve deeper into himself.

Recognition and critical acclaim came early and in 1973, at age 30, the photographer had a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Had he settled in the city, he might have become a star of the New York photography world. Instead, after a quick visit, Cohen got back in his car and drove home to Wilkes-Barre because he “felt like he wasn’t done there.”

Forty years later, the photographer moved to Philadelphia. It took a long time to wrap things up.

Cohen claims he could have just as well taken his photos in Elmira, N.Y., as in Wilkes-Barre. I’m not so sure. Too much coal dust, too much darkness, too much grace born of a violent, mystical marriage between a man and a place: the coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania, an intrinsic part of that self he mined for nearly 50 years.

Some readers may already know Cohen’s work. Some may have seen his 2010 exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There is also a book, “Grim Streets,” published in 2005. But, except for a college show in the early ’60s, there has never been an exhibit of his work on his home turf. Too close for comfort? I wish we could have a chance to tell.

To read the article in the Republican Herald, please click here.

Read more.. Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Abelardo Morell Opening at ROSEGALLERY Tonight!

Come to ROSEGALLERY to celebrate the opening of Abelardo Morell : Outside In.

The reception for the artist is from 6-8pm.

ROSEGALLERY

Bergamot Station Arts Center

2525 Michigan Avenue, Building G5

Santa Monica, CA 90404

310.264.8440

Paper Self, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NY

Read more.. Saturday, November 23rd, 2013