For 60 years, Mark Cohen has wandered through the streets of small cities in Eastern Pennsylvania, Leica and flash attachment in hand, surprising people for 1/250th of a second as he captured — ah, the things he captured: knees, torsos, parts of faces, the very souls of ordinary folk, recorded for posterity as what and who they are. Each picture “tough,” in the way that Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz used the word, Cohen is no anonymous street photographer in a big city. He didn’t just take his picture and move on. Instead, at the same time he actually earned his living taking studio shots of children and couples, out on the same streets his clients walked he invaded peoples’ spaces and got in their faces and emerged with perhaps the most remarkable and distinctive oeuvre of any American street photographer of the last half century.
And now this work is collected in a wonderful career retrospective, each image laid out by hand by Cohen, so you can see the patterns that all along he’s seen — three pieces of bread in a puddle/three fingers gripping a flat-top head; clothes lines across different backyards; a young girl’s eyes from below as she hangs from a swing/the hand of a woman protecting her breast from the intrusion of the camera. Frame (University of Texas Press, $85.00) shows Cohen’s work in color and mostly black and white, in Europe and Mexico but mostly Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. It builds on his previous photo books such as Grim Street and answers any doubts about whether Cohen is a genius of the captured fragment. While videos of Cohen at work show the way he stalks the streets and alleyways of Wilkes-Barre, coming upon local citizens and shocking the bejesus out of them with his camera and flash, there is a distinction that is necessary to make, though hard to convey, between Cohen and a photographer like Bruce Gilden. While they use similar techniques, there’s a humanity found in Cohen’s work that we find missing in Gilden’s, an aesthetic in search of beauty, not harshness. For the aspiring street photographer in your life, this is the holiday photo book you should buy, if only to puzzle over how someone could extract such art, so bravely, from the confines the small community he lived in all these years.
Over a long career, Dave Heath has been a photographer’s photographer, known to the cognoscenti for his fine eye and poignant approach in capturing emotion. His technique is in many ways the opposite of a photographer like Cohen — a significant percentage of the images captured in Multitude, Solitude (Yale University Press, $65.00) were taken with a telephoto lens, that face in the distant crowd isolated and captured from afar.
Best known for his book A Dialogue With Solitude, which came out in 1961, Heath is getting renewed appreciation due to the work of his gallerist, Howard Greenberg, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which is responsible for organizing the retrospective collected in this book. We like Heath’s work, and appreciate his story, wherein a life of hardship made him attuned to the vulnerability of the people he took pictures of, often without them even knowing.
Magnum photographer Hiroji Kubota has a career retrospective out entitled, appropriately, Hiroji Kubota Photographer (Aperture, $63.75). It reveals him to have had a Zelig-like career — working for Elliott Erwitt, taking pictures of anti-war demonstrations in the U.S., the Civil Rights movement, Phnom Penh just before the Khmer Rouge takeover, China under Mao, North Korea over many years. The work, like the personality revealed in the interview that is interspersed with the images, is lyrical and at the same time very direct. While we had never focused on Kubota before Aperture’s recent excerpt from the interview in the book, of course we, like you, had seen the work without truly appreciating a single sensibility was responsible for so many famous images. Kubota is one of the most remarkable documentary photographers of the age, and you should check out this comprehensive and gorgeous book, which his work so clearly deserves.