Many people who’ve been photographed by Mark Cohen probably never saw him coming. For years, on the streets of his home city, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and surrounding working-class towns, Cohen shot quickly and assertively. He held his flash in one hand and his camera in the other and shot extremely close to his subjects, frequently focusing on a single body part or article of clothing. He never looked through his viewfinder to compose the frame.
“If you’re very close to people and someone takes a swing at you, you don’t want to have your head behind a viewfinder because you can’t be aware of the situation,” he said.
Cohen’s new retrospective book, Frame, which the University of Texas Press will publish in October, traces his singular, gritty vision through more than three decades of images. As a teenager, Cohen learned to take photos by taking the bus to the center of town and practicing his skills on strangers as he wandered around. He studied engineering at Penn State and took some art history courses. Back in Wilkes-Barre, he opened a commercial photography business but spent much of his time taking his own personal photos on the streets. In the 1970s, he had a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, and his work was collected all over the world, but his life has always been focused in Pennsylvania.
“I would come to New York for three or four hours at a time, then take the bus or drive back to Wilkes-Barre. I never stayed over in New York unless I had a show. I didn’t have any real connections. I taught at Cooper Union, I taught at the New School. But I was never really part of the New York scene,” he said.
Frame also includes some infrequently seen photographs Cohen made during trips to Europe in the 1960s, which were inspired by an early influence, Henri Cartier-Bresson. While his subject matter is important, Cohen said his own subconscious is just as pivotal in the creation of a photograph. “When I start to make a picture I have to be attracted to the subject somehow. I have to see some button or some tattoo or some kind of leg or shoulder. Something has to draw me visually into the picture,” he said.
In the mid-1970s, Cohen took the photos that constitute his best-known work. Following the example of Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, he started using a flash, which enabled him to work even faster. His sudden and startling presence furthermore “helped to create the action of the picture.”
“People would push back. They saw a certain aggression in it. I’d be in small towns near the center of the city and walking down alleys. There was a kind of phenomenological feeling about it—being in a small town in twilight in a backyard by a fence with a flash. It’s not like Fifth Avenue, with hundreds of people around. This was a completely different kind of experience,” he said.
In 2013, Cohen and his wife moved to an apartment in Philadelphia, where he converted a bedroom into a dark room and archive for hundreds of thousands of negatives. He said he hasn’t been back to Wilkes-Barre since he left, and he doesn’t plan on it. “There’s plenty here. I’ve been here two years and I can identify places that match my psychological attitude about things. It’s the same I did in Wilkes-Barre.”