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There is No Eye: Photographs by John Cohen
There is No Eye: Photographs by John Cohen opens to the public at the Columbia Museum of Art on July 23 and runs through September 26, 2004. (right: John Cohen, Bob Dylan at my loft, Third Avenue, New York City, 1962, gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the artist and Deborah Bell Photographs, New York City)
John Cohen captures legends of the Beat Generation and chronicles the major figures of New York's avant-garde visual and musical arts cultures of the 1950s and '60s with over 130 stunning gelatin and silver print photographs. His immersion into that culture as an artist and musician is central to his photography, and his photographs have become some of the most recognizable pictures of that era. Included in the exhibition are sensitive and moving portraits of the likes of Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Allan Ginsberg, Red Grooms and Franz Kline among others. Later, his work focused on the roots revival music scene. He made his first photographic series while assisting Herbert Matter on a film about the roots of jazz in Black gospel music. Cohen's artistic and cultural interests also led him to the mountain villages of Peru and the American South where he photographed the people and places he encountered there.
Organized by The Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, this exhibition presents the first major retrospective of photographs by John Cohen -- the musician who was central to the emergence of the urban folk revival of the 1960s and who provided inspiration for the Grateful Dead song "Uncle John's Band." The exhibition's name derives from Bob Dylan's liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited that restates part of a conversation the friends had. "You are right John Cohen. There is no eye -- there is only a series of mouths -- long live the mouths." (right: John Cohen, Harlem, New York City, 1954, gelatin silver print, 16 11/16 x 13 6/15 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Deborah Bell Photographs, New York City)
Cohen is best known as a founding member of the late 1950s music group New Lost City Ramblers. With the band, Cohen attempted to recapture the authentic string band sound of the 1920s and 1930s that so influenced Dylan and others. Cohen's band appeared several times at the Newport Folk Festival and was instrumental in documenting and reviving traditional music. It was he who coined the phrase "high lonesome sound" in reference to this genre, and his film of the same name is legendary.
Cohen came to photography after studying at Yale University with painters Josef Albers and Herbert Matter. He then moved to New York where he mixed with a burgeoning art world, including many of the Abstract Expressionist artists and Beatnik poets. He explains his love of photography, "Photographs were like poetry to me, triggering ideas, stimulating images in the mind. Images that were too active to sit on a wall." Cohen's photographs are now housed in such major collections as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (right: John Cohen, Jack Kerauac listening to himself on the radio, 1959, gelatin silver print, 12 7/16 x 8 5/8 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Deborah Bell Photographs, New York City)
He retired after 25 years of teaching visual arts at Purchase College, State University of New York, lives in Putnam Valley, New York. In a Boston Globe interview in 2002 he said, "I've been called a musician, folklorist, visual anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, filmmaker, photographer, ethnographer, visual artist, teacher. I see it all as one work, emanating from one central point in myself." The accompanying wall texts for the exhibition were written by Cohen and chronicle the projects and passions of his life.
Accompanying the exhibition is a 200-page monograph by PowerHouse Books, there is no eye: Photographs by John Cohen and a Smithsonian Folkways CD of 23 songs, one-third of which are previously unreleased, including Bob Dylan's "Roll on John" from a 1961 radio program.
There Is No Eye: Photographs by John Cohen is organized and circulated by the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, in cooperation with John P. Jacob, independent curator. John Cohen is represented by Deborah Bell Photographs, New York. (right: John Cohen, Red Grooms crossing Third Avenue, 1960, gelatin silver print, 12 7/16 x 8 5/8 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Deborah Bell Photographs, New York City)
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