Friday, January 4, 2008

Three books on Lynne Cohen

Even though Lynne Cohen’s photographs do not include a single live human being caught within her frames, their presence is felt. Their presence is felt, not in a warm and loving way, but in a calculating and cold, scientific way. For the past thirty years, Cohen has turned her view camera towards classrooms, science laboratories, testing facilities, waiting rooms and other interior spaces where the designer had function over aesthetics in mind. With the imposition of control placed over the architecture and furnishings of these work places, something has been left out of the mix; that something is anything resembling a pulse.

Cohen, originally a sculptor, came to photography through the influence of minimalist and conceptualist artists of the 1960’s. For her, the medium could be best suited to recording the world’s “readymade” sculptures that were just waiting to be “framed” by a photograph. One form of these “readymade” installations that have dominated her work has been the interiors described above.

Cohen’s photography is that of a detached observer. Purposely mechanical and proficient, she directs our attention from a vantage point that cleanly describes the subject with possibly the same propensity as the original designer of the spaces. The photographs can almost be arranged into neat groupings according to their similar formal qualities; camera directed towards the corners of rooms, camera square to a wall, camera pointing at forty-five degree angle to wall. She essentially makes the same three or four photographs over and over again, each a compelling survey of artifice and surface.

With their formulaic constructions, the variation comes from the ‘inventiveness’ of the room’s designer in furniture choice or addition of décor. Many of Cohen’s subjects appear decorated as if the designer arranged the room with the necessary functional articles and upon stepping back to observe their creation, discovered it uninviting and soulless. Their solution was to add a random plant (doomed) or painting (kitsch), each chosen simply based on what the decorating budget could afford. These phony attempts at warmth or individualism only serve to amplify the artifice and uniformity.

Her photographs are often funny with their disconnects of bad taste but there is also a much darker side that may remind us of Orwell’s prophecies. Her descriptions of the science laboratories with their linoleum tiled floors and even overhead lighting seem to be spaces where the restless minds of lab techs alternate between performing good and atrocity.

There have been several books of Cohen’s work published over the past twenty years. In 1987, Aperture released Occupied Territory which brought together 87 photographs broken into ‘types’ of spaces under headings such as; Facsimiles, Conglomerates, Preoccupations, Sanctuaries, Dislocations and Controls.

This is a fine edit and arrangement of the photographs but ultimately this book suffers from poor reproductions and cheap materials as was common with many of Aperture’s titles from the late 1980’s. David Byrne penned a good forword in which he takes a moment to praise Cohen for her cleanliness during a “glut of sloppy art” where “the roughness of line, the dripping paint, the ’bad’ drawing are all meant to be evidence of the intense turmoil in the artist’s soul.” He also interestingly points out that the complaints from the personnel manning the Sky-Lab space station (before it fell to earth in bits and pieces) were mostly on aesthetic grounds - the want for more pleasing colors for future missions.

In 1992, Editions FRAC and Hotel de Arts in Paris published a small catalog to coincide with two exhibitions that were held in France. Called L'Endroit du Décor in French yet Lost and Found in English, this book collects 49 photographs and handles them in a more handsome manner than the Aperture title. It features better paper stock and richer reproductions and generally has a nice feel for a catalog. That being said, the offering of photos feels a little skimpy. Most of my interest here is with the texts as there are three essays on Cohen, an interview, and extensive biography and bibliography information.

The last, and by far the best book on Lynne Cohen, is the fine new release from Le Point du Jour Editeur called Camouflage. This book published in 2005, reproduces 171 photographs that span Cohen’s career. The photos are arranged in a continuous flow without individual captions or dates. One of the interesting aspects of this book that the others miss due to their size or format is the consistency of Cohen’s work even over the span of decades. This book specifies the approximate dates for the images with a simple legend at the back citing; 1970’s (pages 5-56) 1980’s (pages 58-135) 1990’s (pages 137-181) 2000-2004 (pages 182-191). By knowing the length of time that passes, one sees that there is little or no change in décor or the over-all tone of these spaces throughout the entire book. Cohen has tapped into a working method as well as a subject that does not appear capable of change.

Lynne Cohen may be of a lineage closer than expected to Lewis Baltz and the other ‘topographic’ photographers widely celebrated by today’s younger generations but she seems to fly well under most people’s radar. In retrospect, she would have been a welcome addition to that boy’s club as her photographs contain all of the “rigorous purity, deadpan humor and a casual disregard for the importance of the images” that defined that tradition.

Buy online at Le Point du Jour Editeur

Book Available Here (Occupied Territory)

Book Available Here (Lost and Found)