"I got new eyes, Everything looks far away" --Bob Dylan, "Highlands," 1997
John Cohen's photographs look eerily familiar. A young Bob Dylan takes a cool drag on a cigarette, slumped against an apartment wall, one hand tussling his curly black hair. The Kentucky old-time musician Roscoe Holcomb poses proud and upright, banjo at the ready before an old shed on his mountain farm. The Reverend Gary Davis stands on a Harlem street corner, dressed in suit and hat, pipe in mouth, sunglasses over his blind eyes, singing spirituals and picking the Piedmont blues on a beat-up, old guitar. Two Peruvian panpipe players in dusty suits close their eyes in concentration, lips pursed tautly over their instruments.
The obvious reason these images seem so familiar is that they have graced the cover of many an album jacket. As Cohen notes, his photographs used for album fronts have comprised "a moveable exhibition" of his work for years.
But by bringing together Cohen's photos for the first time in a gallery space, this traveling show, which resides at UNC-Greensboro's Weatherspoon Gallery until mid-August, also reveals a less obvious reason for the spooky intimacy of Cohen's work. His photographs give expression to the mysterious distance that always seems to spring up--defiantly, profoundly--when someone attempts to document "folk" music's powerful essence or when they present us with moments, places, settings, and milleus now destroyed.
In the photographs, Cohen can never quite catch the elusive celestial chord, the original holy spirit, the magical bedrock ground zero he seeks to recover and preserve. Concerned with capturing the ancient, the old, the rooted, the sacred, the special, the something-to-hold-on-to, Cohen winds up instead expressing an experience perhaps more profound and meaningful: the shock, the unease, the oddness, the melancholy, the puzzlement of modernity's inexorable march forward.
You can gaze backward into history, Cohen's photographs seem to cry out in their black-and-white silences. But that something, that hunch of "it," that lodestone the photographs and the music so central to the photographs seem to summon and beckon one toward, is continually vanishing the moment the camera clicks. Everything seems to refuse, to evade, to fade into the muted grey hues of Cohen's palette.
Perhaps this is because as a middle-class suburbanite born in 1932, Cohen never quite fully transformed himself into one of the magical old-time musicians he came to love and revere (as one of his documentary subjects, Bob Dylan, finally has in the past recent years). Seemingly too honest a man to reinvent himself fully as something he was not, Cohen has staked out his artistic turf on the borderline between the traditional (as a member of the old-time stringband revivalists the New Lost City Ramblers) and the new (as a photographer and filmmaker who studied with Joseph Albers, hung with the Beats and the Cedar Bar crowd, and became a kind of proto-counterculturalist long before the '60s kicked into high gear). His photographs express the ambiguities and confusing moments of looking and listening that his position entails. They speak to the severing of the past that the modern world continually offers its inhabitants and dwellers.
The photos seem most of all about in-betweenness: between old and new, real and fantastical, elaborated and direct, true and incomprehensible, familiar and alien, pure and corrupted, self and other. As Cohen puts it, he always wanted to explore the "possibility of having an inside view without being part of the action" but he wound up "always torn between a need to document (describe) what was in front of me and the desire to follow intuitive visual impulses." Caught between how music and art moved him both to capture the expressiveness of others and to express himself, Cohen made photographs that seem startlingly direct and bafflingly distant all at once. It's a position that resonates, as much if not more than the core of authenticity Cohen's photos seemingly long to illuminate so fervently.
But what is this core, this "it," this elusive something, that Cohen's photographs seem to summon up and then watch vanish before the very lens? Trying to find words for it in his brief, but thoughtful, introduction, the cultural critic Greil Marcus finds this "it" to be something beyond words. Marcus seems confident at first in unlocking the riddle of Cohen's work: "The photographer's best, most fully realized pictures are also his or her most inscrutable." But then Marcus pulls back. "Or rather the inscrutability is a quality the photographer helplessly records but cannot translate." Ultimately, Marcus gives up: "Here there is no point of view. There is something else; I don't know what to call it, so I won't try."
Is there a way to get at this "something else" that Marcus cannot name? Cohen himself tries in the text accompanying the exhibition (also found in the catalog, published by Powerhouse Books). He heard this "it," this "something else" in childhood memories of his father and other men singing in temple. He heard it in the music and strange advertisements of far-off country radio stations at night. He saw it in bubble gum cards of World War II scenes. Later he saw it in the crazy Dadaist art of Red Grooms and others in New York. He heard it in Harlem churches where women dressed in flowing white robes and fainted in religious ecstasy. He glimpsed it in Peruvian mountain villages where cowboys made music, paraded in masks, and danced toward the camera with boot stomps at once welcoming and threatening. Cohen pursued it at rickety, wooden-stage fiddle contests and among intimate family and church gatherings in the South. He hunted for it among Beat writers such as Kerouac, Corso, and Ginsberg on the set of Robert Frank's experimental film Pull My Daisy, and he tried to snap it at frantic angles among heated discussions at the Cedar Bar. At the end of the exhibition, photos of Cohen's wife and children suggest that after all his travels, he ultimately found the stirring mystery, with all its richness and sadness, its full feelings of awe and gnawing unease, right under his nose--in the dometic spaces of home and family.
One also hears this "it" on a CD that Smithsonian Folkways has released to accompany Cohen's photographs. There Is No Eye: Music For Photographs, Recordings of Musicians Photographed by John Cohen contains incredible moments that stir a listener even as they fade into the digitized sonic ether: the vocal responses Reverend Gary Davis makes to his guitar picking--"uh-huh," "yes," "talk to me!"; the harmony cries of Alice Gerard and Hazel Dickens; the raw fiddle of Eck Robertson and Charlie Higgins; Bill Monroe and cohort's manly, "John Henry" feats of daring and instrumental skill that skirt death and defy machines to keep up with human muscle.
Yet for all these moments of magic, for all John Cohen's yearning to preserve them, in the end his photographs seem to represent and manifest the opposite of capture for safekeeping. No, the photos speak more to the the impossibility of preservation, the vanishing of connection, the press of time. The photos and accompanying sounds are about the problems of roots, not the preservation of roots. They are about the tricky, troubling interplay of roots-searchers and roots-holders.
In this way, Cohen catches a sense of modern conundrums: the longing (perhaps suspect, but present nonetheless) for something religiously sacred, fulfilling, pure, and connected to the old and firm in a world that can feel utterly artificial. And the continual way this longing seems to exacerbate the feeling of fragment and loss even as it produces moments in music and art of touching but temporary connection.
"There is no eye," Dylan declared in 1965, in part out of a conversation with Cohen. Over 30 years later, Dylan finds himself still seeking out visions, "new eyes." But maybe he was right back then, when he revisited Highway 61. Maybe we might better think of ourselves as lost now, in the modern world, among "a series of mouths." Certainly Cohen's camera lens became a kind of mouth: a kiss, a shout, a whisper, a click and whir, a silence that spits us out of its receding center.
For more information on there is no eye: Photographs by John Cohen, call (336) 334-5770 or visit www.uncg.edu/wag for hours and various events planned in connection to the exhibition.