John Cohen

John Cohen

New York City. The city of all cities, brimming with the bustle of throngs of restaurants, record shops, and vintage stores, promising any and all who ventured there fortune and fame. But in the 1950s, things were a little different. Buildings had yet to be coloured up by the artful eyes of aerosol-laden vandals, the East Village was still in the womb, and Bob Dylan was just Bob Dylan.

“It wasn’t a big deal. It was dumpy, the feeling grey, dismal.” This is at least how 80-year-old John Cohen describes living in New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Photographer, filmmaker and the founding member of folk band The New Lost City Ramblers, Cohen was one of the many young men who moved to New York City and “got lost right in the middle of it.”

Originally setting out to be a painter, Cohen had his first love affair with photography while studying at Yale. Inevitable as a 20-something man, Cohen was distracted by an archaeology course that sent him on a peregrination of Peru to study the descendants of Andean weavers. There he wrote, filmed and photographed freely, and his photographs – which ended up appearing in the only photo gallery in the U.S. at the time – unveiled “a power that even inside” he didn’t yet know about.

“It became clear to me what I wanted to do. What I had to do,” Cohen said. “But it was a tougher life because of it. I turned my back on, well, money.”

Then along came New York. As most artists did, Cohen found a home in a cramped apartment loft just two blocks away from the notorious Cedar Bar, one of the many places where fame found him after photographing Beat Generationers like Jack Kerouac before their imminent rises to stardom.

“Bob Dylan hadn’t even made his first record yet when I photographed him,” Cohen said of his infamous photo of a ragged young Dylan, brow furrowed, sucking on a cigarette. “A lot of it started with my neighbour, Robert Frank, who was doing the film Pull My Daisy. He asked me to photograph the things that went on off the set.

“Allen Ginsburg was there, and we talked about Woody Guthrie. He had plenty of things to say about Woody’s music, but the fascinating part was Woody was institutionalized at the same place as Allen’s mother,” Cohen said with a chuckle.  “So it was a little art community – a wonderful one. And of course they all became famous.”

Cohen soon discovered a powerful parallel between music and photography, and after the formation of The New Lost City Ramblers in 1958, the band took on a project in Eastern Kentucky focusing on the depression in the 1930s. Among a myriad of revolutionary photographs, Cohen also produced his first film, The High Lonesome Sound, inspired by coal miner and musician Roscoe Holcomb. Cohen’s photos were raw and vivid, and captured Holcomb just as he was: thin-lipped and taut; sleeves wrinkled and rolled up; dusty banjo in his hands; the lonesome figure in the midst of economic depression.

“The separation of my personal interest in the music and what it meant to me, I didn’t try to make pictures of that,” Cohen explained. “I took pictures of the things that made that music. Coal mines. Churches. Farms. The people.”

Cohen said a challenge he faced with photography – especially if he wanted to make any money at all – was exercising creative freedom. One grey New York afternoon, Cohen was wrestling with his old love – painting. His brush soared through the air, striking the canvas this way and that, driven by an artist’s bout of inspiration. In the midst of it all, the phone rang, and a rushed voice on the other end demanded Cohen pack up at once and fly to Texas. A young woman had just got the most points for the “4H Club in America” and she must be photographed…for Seventeen magazine.

“I followed this girl around and photographed her brushing her teeth, wiping her nose, bringing her father a glass of water,” Cohen said. “I took the photographs and they published them, but then I thought, wait a second, I was trying to make a painting!”

“It was kind of meaningless. With the band, we created what we were interested in. It was our voices, our ideas being projected. It wasn’t some editor telling us American’s would like to know how many times the girl in Texas brushed her teeth.”

Cohen’s long-time friend and acclaimed photographer Robert Frank faced similar struggles when his first book of photography, The Americans, was published. Critics accused the photos of being sloppy and grainy, and even Cohen himself – his head still “totally full of Peru” – didn’t quite know how to relate to the huge collection of photos.

“There are always those temptations to follow the fashions,” Cohen said. “But going back to Robert’s photos, it’s not about being neat and doing what the establishment is doing. It’s about being critical, questioning, and as an artist like Robert, challenging the official smell of photography.”

At 80 years old, Cohen is still flourishing as a musicologist and visual anthropologist (“You can use the word multidisciplinary, but that’s boring,” he joked), and is currently working on his first digital film.

“They say it’s quicker and cheaper, but it actually takes longer and costs more,” Cohen said of today’s advances in storytelling methods. “But one of my more recent films, I made out of material from a film I had lying around since 1962. I couldn’t show it all those years ago because there was no way of doing portable picture and sound. Today I can take old things that have never been together and make them be so.”

Cohen said as an artist, being true to form requires recognition of something beyond the photo or the song, or whatever form one’s art may take; “it’s that unique thing beyond all of that, which each individual has within them.”

As Cohen moves forward with his art, he has chosen to let the past go. He recently sold all his previous works – outs, films, photos, recordings, papers – to The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where he says, “they’ll last longer than I will now.”

By Anna Brooks

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