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.
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 paradiseâ¦
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.