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January | February 2002 - Boston Photography Focus

January | February 2002 - Boston Photography Focus

john cohen & why there

john cohen & why there is no I like to say that I grew up with John Cohen’s music, but that’s not exactly true. More accurately, I grew up with the songs popularized by John and his family, notably the collection of American Folk Songs for Children published in the 1940s by composer Ruth Crawford Seeger and re-interpreted by countless musicians, among them her step-son (and John’s brother-in-law) Pete Seeger. I didn’t actually begin listening to the New Lost City Ramblers, the band that John co-founded in 1958 with Mike Seeger and Tom Paley, until high school, when I discovered the Lincoln Center Music Library, the Musical Heritage Society, and Folkways Records all within walking distance of home. Although it’s for his music and work with musicians that he is most widely recognized, John Cohen started out as a visual artist. During the early 1950s, John studied painting with Josef Albers and photography with Herbert Matter at Yale University; he moved to New York City in 1957. At the time of his arrival there, the Abstract Expressionists still held sway, and were easy to find presiding over conversations downtown at the Cedar Bar. In the cooperative galleries on the Lower East Side, Pop Art was emerging in the happenings of Red Grooms and Claes Oldenberg, while in the coffeehouses of nearby Greenwich Village the Beat poets were reading, and at the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street the urban folk-music scene was being born. John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, 1964. Courtesy of the artist and Deborah Bell, New York. John Cohen “discovered” one of the most noted old-time Appalachian musicians, Roscoe Holcomb, in Daisy, Kentucky in 1959. Cohen later made a film about his hardscrabble life, “The High Lonesome Sound.” This portrait by Cohen appears on the cover of Holcomb’s 1965 Folkways release of the same name. 4 5

an improvisation on mus i c and photograp Leslie K. Brown, Curator, PRC From his loft on Third Avenue, John immersed himself in the ferment of the New York City art scene. Soon after he arrived, John had his first exhibition at Helen Gee’s Limelight. In 1959, his neighbor Robert Frank asked an shared. experience Of Dylan, Cohen recalls a moment in 1962, when he “showed me the words The eye permits us to experience and to document the thing depicted, but is rarely sufficient to convey the deeper meaning of John to take production stills of the filming of Pull My Daisy. The images produced during those sessions are among the finest portraits ever of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Frank himself. In return, Frank photographed the New Lost City Ramblers for a series of images that would grace the covers and liner notes of their albums for years to come. John’s loft became a crossroads for musicians and artists. An organization of independent photographers, with members including Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand, and others, was formed there. Southern musicians on their way to and from performances dropped by, as did Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax, and others involved in the folk-music revival. Throughout the late ’50s and early ’60s, Cohen toured extensively with the New Lost City Ramblers, sharing the stage with rural musicians like Roscoe Holcomb and the Stanley Brothers as well as with emerging stars such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Robert Cantwell, whose When We Were Good (1996) outstandingly documents the growth and decline of the folk music revival, noted that during this period the Ramblers “raised the nap of the revival with newly esotericized discographic sources and a performance style that sounded as exotic as a Tibetan prayer.” Also during the late 1950s Cohen took the first of many trips to Peru, ostensibly to study Andean textile production. In the isolated mountain region of Q’eros he photographed Indian weavers at work, learning their vocabulary and rituals and developing a deep appreciation for Andean music. Years later, Cohen returned to Q’eros to make the films Mountain Music of Peru (1984) and Carnival in Q’eros (1992). He also recorded and released two albums of traditional Peruvian music. One of his recordings, of a young girl singing an Andean huano, was included as a sample of the sounds of our planet that was sent into space on the Voyager spacecraft. In 1962, the young Bob Dylan visited for a portrait session on John’s Third Avenue rooftop. In addition to their common appreciation for traditional music, the two men shared a close friendship with the ailing Woody Guthrie. to his new song A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. At first it resembled the old ballad Lord Randall or Where Have You Been Billy Boy. Then it seemed like an old French symbolist poem to me, and I invited Bob to look at some of that poetry at my loft. I thought his verses were very strong although I couldn’t imagine how he would fit them to music. The night of the Cuban Missile Crisis when it felt like the world was on the brink of atomic collision, Dylan and I sang together at the Gaslight Café. We did an old Carter Family song, You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone, not certain if there’d be anyone left to miss us.” By the late ’60s the Ramblers were performing in large halls like the Fillmore, in lineups with supergroups such as The Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Cohen notes that during this time “a shift of sensibilities set in. The beat generation had prepared the stage for the counter culture, while the emerging civil rights movement shook the social landscape… For me, a decade of wide-eyed wandering with my camera was closing down… So much of what I’d responded to on a poetic level was becoming entertainment and commerce… Further, there was my own dissatisfaction with the prospects of ever getting my work seen on its intended level. By the time the photography galleries were opening I was somewhere else.” That “somewhere else” was filmmaking. John shot his first film, a silent two-reeler, on the rooftop with Dylan. Beginning with his landmark 1962 feature, The High Lonesome Sound, John has made a total of fifteen documentary films, including important work on the folk culture of Peru and on the North Carolina musician Dillard Chandler (The End of an Old Song, 1970). “I made films about music,” he writes. “And that challenge became so great and transformative that it became my main effort for the next twenty years.” Behind the scenes, but central to the picture, is the growth of John’s own family. In the early 1960s, Cohen married Penny Seeger. The youngest child of musicologist Charles Seeger and composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, after the death of her mother when Penny was eight she lived with her half-brother Pete. A potter by training, she also sang with her siblings Mike and Peggy on several collections of American folk music, including the classics American Folk Songs for Christmas and Animal Folk Songs for Children, both of which drew extensively from their mother’s folk music collection. To support his family, John took a position as Professor of Visual Arts at the State University of New York, Purchase, where he worked until his retirement in 1997. Penny and John raised two children, Rufus and Sonja, in Putnam Country, New York. In the summer of 1965, when daughter Sonja was still an infant, her parents brought her to the Newport Folk Festival where the Ramblers were scheduled to perform. Uncle Pete Seeger opened the program by playing a cassette of Sonja crying, announcing to the audience, “Here’s the real folk music.” Sonja, now an adult, has recorded two highly regarded recordings with composer Dick Connette’s Last Forever project, which draws its inspiration from American traditional music. Her brother Rufus, also a musician, works in New Mexico as a textile craftsman. The Cohen family is featured in both the exhibition, where photographs document their growth, and in John’s CD, There Is No Eye: Music for Photographs. The CD presents a musical counterpoint to the exhibition, with songs by many of the artists whom John photographed, from Rev. Gary Davis and Holcomb to Dylan and David Amram, and includes pieces by Rufus and Sonja. In all of John Cohen’s work, his collecting, photographing, filmmaking, performing, teaching, and parenting, a layer of pure fact (i.e., the thing depicted) is combined with a layer of meaning conveyed (i.e., the memory revived or the tradition shared). The eye permits us to experience and to document the thing depicted, but is rarely sufficient to convey the deeper meaning of an experience shared. Individual songs or photographs may describe specific moments in time, and each moment possess a distinct historical narrative, which we may know by looking. But experience is not conveyed by looking, or wisdom by simply reading. This has been a central theme of the New Lost City Ramblers, and it is implicit in John Cohen’s photographs as well. Meaning and value are conveyed not through the eye alone, but through the active and generous bequest of tradition and knowledge from one generation to another, from one culture to another, from teacher to student, and from parent to child. This, for me, is the underlying message of John Cohen’s work, and the deeper narrative of this exhibition: there is no eye because, in the end, it is the exchange of songs, the sharing of wisdom, the flow of knowledge, and the gift of life that are important, and not the individual eye/I. John P. Jacob, Guest Curator Penobscot, Maine 2001 John Cohen’s photograph, Jack Kerouac Listening to Himself on the Radio, (seen at left) demonstrates, literally and humorously, the complex conundrum photographers face when attempting to document subjects of an auditory nature. Can photography adequately capture a musical moment by recording the performer, or even a snippet of the performance? In this short improvisation, an etude if you will, I attempt to cast a wider net and muse upon Cohen’s fascinating photographs within a larger historical and philosophical context. From its inception, photography has been lauded as a method for nature to reproduce itself. While this was meant primarily in the visual sense — cameras were often compared to eyes — artists have long attempted to capture the non-perceptual. Those seeking the abstract saw in sound an equivalent for the internal non-objective world for which they were searching: an aesthetic “music of the spheres”. While photography and dance seemed to partner more readily, painting took especially to music: James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Wassily Kandinsky titled their canvases symphonies and compositions, while Piet Mondrian explored the pulsating rhythms of jazz. This is not to say that photographers did not engage music or its attendant ideas. In fact, some saw photography as particularly suited for the task. Cohen alludes to this ability when explaining why he did not become a painter: “The lens became the center of an equation with the visible world on one side and the interior world on the other.” Many culture mavens at the turn of the last century were interested in synaesthesia, or the crossing of various senses whereby one could see music and hear colors. Such beliefs led to the invention of fascinating instruments such as the color organ, which played colors instead of music. Photographer Francis Brugiuère made some of the earliest abstract photographs and films documenting patterns produced by such an apparatus. Playing off the Theory of Correspondences so popular with the Symbolists, Alfred Stieglitz photographed clouds, initially titling them “Music,” intending that they stand in for mental states akin to those induced by melodies. Cohen’s exhibition, book, and accompanying CD provide the viewer (and listener) with a rare opportunity to see (and to hear) what he has recorded. Although freezing performers in mid refrain or strum, his photographs are not silent; instead they sing with beautiful formal relationships. When Cohen’s photographs don’t show music, they imply it, transforming the viewer into a makeshift deejay. Images of Cohen’s wife in Peru and a lone figure in a Tenth Street studio, for example, almost give rise to a melancholy dirge. One would think that photography’s use of a negative and its ability to be repeated and reinterpreted much like a musical score would make these arts close cousins. Ansel Adams’s much-repeated comparison of the negative to sheet music and its printing to performance alludes to this attribute. Quite the opposite, many photographers even go so far as to destroy their negatives so no one can translate them. Ironically or aptly, Cohen’s re-discovery of Left to right: 1. John Cohen, Woody Guthrie at Cooper Union. Courtesy of the artist and Deborah Bell, New York. 2. John Cohen, Third Avenue, New York City, 1962. Courtesy of the artist and Deborah Bell, New York. 3. John Cohen, Philadelphia, 1961. Courtesy of the artist and Deborah Bell, New York. 4. John Cohen, Jack Kerouac listening to himself on the radio. Courtesy of the artist and Deborah Bell, New York. 5. John Cohen, Harlem, New York City, 1954. Courtesy of the artist and Deborah Bell, New York. 6. John Cohen, Harlem, New York City, 1954. Courtesy of the artist and Deborah Bell, New York. (continued on page 8) 6 7

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