Book Review: Grim Street by Mark Cohen

It’s rare to see street photography that captures life in a small American town. Without the crowded sidewalks and anonymity that one experiences in a big city, street photography doesn’t seem nearly as viable. Yet, photographer Mark Cohen stalked the same small radius of Wilkes-Barre, where he lived and worked, for decades, taking groundbreaking and revealing photos of small-town life that revel in the details. A well-edited selection of his black-and-white work comprises Grim Street.

The maxim “get close and shoot wide” is taken to an almost uncomfortable extreme in Cohen’s photographs. By his own admittance, he’s intrusive rather than invisible. Shooting with 21mm, 28mm, and 35mm lenses, often from as close as two feet away, he hones in on fragments of the whole: feet, torsos, necks, faces. He uses direct flash to illuminate (and likely temporarily blind) his subjects at night. In a lot of ways, his work is reminiscent of Bruce Gilden’s—or perhaps vice-versa, since they are contemporaries. But the raw, life-affirming ethos of Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, largely absent in Gilden’s work, guides Cohen’s sensibility as well.

Street photography, like jazz, involves spontaneous composition. Cohen’s nervy, kinetic, confrontational approach often results in strident, rough-hewn images. Body parts jut into the frame at odd angles. A hand blocks the camera lens. People cover their faces or stick out their tongues. There’s motion blur, soft focus, overexposed backgrounds, on-camera flash and other issues that most photographers strenuously work to avoid. Cohen embraces these “dealbreakers” and utilizes them in order to convey meaning and emotion.

Disjointed as they are, the photographs can also be miraculous. The images in the book are all the more impressive considering that, like many of the great street and documentary photographers, he doesn’t believe in cropping.

The photo on the front cover sets the stage Taken at night, it shows a girl with a jump rope. Her head and feet have been cropped out. The long shutter speed adds a ghostly, otherworldly quality to the background. It’s hard not to keep looking, to keep puzzling out the mysteries inherent in the image.

Perhaps the most mysterious photo is “blindfolded girl in rain.” Taken through a window at night, with the flash reflection plainly visible and illuminated raindrops percolating through the frame, we are privy to a very unusual family photograph that reveals its secrets slowly and forces the viewer to ask questions. A girl with white gauze covering her eyes stands center frame on the opposite side of the window, unable to see out of it, and is illuminated by the harsh direct flash. On the far right, a woman (presumably her mother) looks at the camera with suspicion. Behind the girl, a man wearing a bucket hat (presumably her father) smokes disinterestedly. Her sister, presumably, on the far right of the frame, looks away. It takes a minute to register two shadowy figures in the background. Why is she wearing the bandages? Why are they posing for this photo—or are they? What is the family dynamic here? Like many great photographs, this one asks more questions than it answers.

The 100 black-and-white photographs in the book reveal a consistent vision. Taken between 1967 and 1990, they are sequenced chronologically and given brief, if somewhat unnecessary, captions (“woman with laundry,” for example). The book features two interviews, with curator Anne Wilkes-Tucker and Thomas Southall, respectively, that provide Cohen’s body of work with insight and context.

It’s worth pointing out that the largely self-taught photographer’s work was first championed by legendary MoMA curator and photography critic John Szarkowski, who organized a 1973 solo show around the Wilkes-Barre photos. Cohen’s color photographs, shot simultaneously, have been compiled in an excellent follow-up book, True Color (powerHouse, 2007).

Grim Street: Photographs by Mark Cohen. powerHouse, 2005. 144 pages. 100 photographs. Hardcover. $45.

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