In the summer of 1955 a relatively naive and uninformed John Cohen (born 1932) crossed the straits of Gibraltar. He arrived in Tangier with a handwritten note in Arabic; the man who had composed it in New York had told him to “keep this paper far from your passport.” Cohen had no idea why, or indeed what the note said; it was not addressed to a specific person. He was simply instructed to look for a certain man when he arrived, who would then send him to “the others.” Cohen’s otherwise straightforward trip to make photographs in Morocco thus began with a sense of intrigue. In his words: “The camera led my way to a distant culture, along with the desire to represent what I could see and sense there, and not be distracted by chronology or thought. My photographs were intended to be a sensual response to light and to the people who inhabited these spaces.”
Photographer and musician John Cohen’s final testimony: a lyrical flow of images from his 60-year career
One cold sunny morning in December 2018, Gerhard Steidl drove from New York City to see John Cohen (1932–2019)—photographer, filmmaker and founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers—at his home in upstate Putnam Valley. The purpose of the visit was to collect images for Cohen’s 2019 book Look up to the Moon. In Cohen’s barn-cum-studio they stumbled across another group of prints from across his 60-year career. Steidl took the boxes under his arm, and the photos now appear for the first time here, in Cohen’s most lyrical and personal book, as well as his last.
Sequenced wholly by mood and intuition and eschewing titles and dates, the portraits, landscapes and still lifes, along with drawings, unify disparate subjects—his wife Penny, Roscoe Holcomb, fragments of the Parthenon—into a dreamlike flow. Cohen’s text, recalling his intertwining dreams across decades, explores the line between dream and reality, memory and book.
Cheap Rents … and de Kooning revisits the New York downtown art scene between 1957 and 1963, when the Tenth Street galleries were the center of the art world and inexpensive lofts were still available. John Cohen was there, and portraying the artists' haunts--among them the Cedar Tavern, the Club and the Tanager Gallery--and creating a definitive photographic impression of a lively, hedonistic, highly sociable scene. Abstract Expressionists, Pop artists and Beat writers could be found at these bars and galleries; Willem de Kooning's studio was in the middle of the block, and is also documented here. This volume, by one of the leading chroniclers of the era, provides its richest and most intimate portrait. John Cohen (born 1932) is a photographer, musicologist and founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers. He has extensively documented Bob Dylan, the Beat writers and folk musicians in Appalachia. He has been one of the most important "discoverers" of traditional musicians and singers, recording Dillard Chandler and Roscoe Holcomb among others.
Walking in The Light is John Cohen's photographic journey towards and through gospel music. From 1954 to 1964 he photographed in the black churches of East New York, on the streets of New Haven, in the home of blind Reverend Gary Davis, as well as in the darkness of a boxing gym and the blackness of coal shovelers at an industrial site. Of all these images, those of worshippers at a small church in Harlem form the emotional centerpiece of Cohen's journey, where music leads to spiritual release in trances and dances. The last destination of this odyssey is Johns Island, South Carolina, where Gullah children connect to African ancestors through games and play. Cohen's photographs of musical performances in religious settings reflect the inner sound expressed on the face of a singer, a soulful expression, the quality of light that illuminates the face of a child, or the intensity of a prayer. Sound, song and religious feeling are permanently rendered in black and white.
John Cohen was a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, one of the American folk revival's most authentic and respected musical groups. In the 1960s he made a series of photographs of the last years of Woody Guthrie's life, and early portraits of Bob Dylan on his arrival in New York, depicting two titans of American music at opposite ends of their careers. In the process, Cohen portrayed one of the great moments of American folk music history. The book contains other images from the 1960s, including the music scenes at Washington Square and on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, images of Jerry Garcia and the musicians in San Francisco's Family Dog, as well as the psychedelic Sky River Rock festival. In 1970, Dylan requested Cohen make another set of color photographs of him with a camera that could take photographs from a block away. He was portrayed walking unrecognized on the streets of the city and at a farm in upstate New York. The photographs were used in Dylan's album Self Portrait.
In 1959 John Cohen travelled to East Kentucky looking for what he calls old music. Cohen asked for names at local gas stations but soon ran out of leads, and drove off the highway onto the next dirt road. Here he stumbled across Roscoe Holcomb playing the banjo and singing on his front porch in a way says Cohen, "that made the hairs on my neck stand up on end." And so by pure chance began the lifelong friendship that is the background for The High and Lonesome Sound. Cohen visited Holcomb frequently over the next three decades, and made many photographs, films and records of his music. In time Holcomb, a poor coal miner by trade, became a regular feature on the American concert and festival circuits. The strange beauty and discomfort of his music--a mixture of blues, ballads and Baptist hymns, and unique through his high strained voice--was exposed to a larger audience. Nevertheless, Holcomb died alone in a nursing home in 1981. The High and Lonesome Sound combines Cohen's vintage photos, film and musical recordings as well as an anecdotal text into a multimedia tribute to this underappreciated legend of American music whose every performance was, in Cohen's words, "not just a rendition of music, but a test of something to be overcome."