Mark Cohen first came to the attention of the photography world in 1973 with a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This iconic show proved to the art world that Cohen was the heir apparent to the explosive street photography of the 60s. Now, after more than thirty years, Cohen’s complex and influential body of work is presented for the first time in Grim Street, an astonishing collection of Americana as original and effective as the work of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, or Weegee.
Cohen’s photography confronts the viewer with a startling beauty, rapidly shifting from rough and confrontational to quiet, respectful, and serene. In Grim Street, filled with what Cohen calls “grab shots,” you can easily imagine the photographer guilefully patrolling the streets of Wilkes-Barre, the Pennsylvania mine-town he calls home. His camera, often prefocused and shot from the hip, scrolls around its subjects searching for tidbits of delectable detail. Then suddenly thrusting out towards its subjects, a strobe bursts, capturing a violently cropped spot of stockinged legs creeping around a corner, or a woman’s bared teeth and stretched lips. In these images emerges a cluttered world of visceral, sexualized encounters with the human body.
The photographs are equally fascinating for the inconsistent reaction of their subjects. In one shot, a group of young girls hide their faces with their coats and cower against a brick wall, desperately searching for any protection from Cohen’s camera. Another shot brandishes a dapper young man, hair greased and comb quickly pulled out for the glamour shot. But just when you think that you can’t see the photographs for all the noise, Cohen’s camera stands back in meditation, displaying sensitive compositions of the gardens of Wilkes-Barre and the small town’s residents engaging in their daily comforts. One of the more complex bodies of street photography around, Cohen’s work will open your eyes as wide as they can go and keep you flipping the pages for years to come.
“Cohen’s black-and-white photos…are deliberately disconcerting, almost vulgar….Heads are cropped out of the frame; truncated hands, legs, and arms loom monstrously into view; perspective warps. Cohen wasn’t alone in his harsh, comic view of down-home America, but his in-your-face take and fragmentary results were jarringly unique, and much imitated.” —Vince Aletti, The Village Voice