I have dedicated my life to entering the conversation between person and place, limiting my options, so to speak, to the terminal stillness of a photograph. Stillness should not be mistaken for silence, nor should it be thought of as static. For as often as I approach strangers and ask if I may take their images, bearing witness to this awkward encounter is but only the first of many steps in a complex dance. My images are neither reticent nor flirtatious, though they offer up their own language in-tandem with subject and audience in a choreography called “environmental portraiture,” or “social documentary.” Regardless of media taxonomies, I want to show you something. And I want to make images that creak and hinge at the most inopportune moments, reminding us of what it means to be human.
Due to many circumstances, I have come to travel great distances relatively late in my life. China, Tibet, Korea and Mongolia are but a few of the regions of the world that have taken me underwing to show me something about grace, hardship, beauty and curiosity. In these places, and within the proximity of my hometown of Manhattan, NY, the concept of “otherness” is a misnomer, and serves as a blockade rather than a doorway. I choose to photograph people from very close range: close enough to embrace, or be pushed back. I prefer to make contact with the people I am about to photograph, affording them the opportunity to engage or resist, and under their own terms. In turn, this has afforded me rare chances to participate in a global discourse, distorted as it may be through the processes of oral and visual translations, on the most human of levels.
I have no desire to hide behind a tree with a telephoto and snipe; not even under the guise of candid-work does this appeal to me. In the end, it is a quality of closeness, dare I say an intimacy I seek to achieve, and to do so comes at a cost: rejection–of rigid social constellations, of hermetic reflexes, of myopic utopias. It is no different than entering a relationship, one in which both partners lean in close to study the warble and humidity of every word spoken and withheld.
I photograph strangers. I usually spend no more than sixty-seconds of their time, our time, introducing myself, exchanging a few anecdotes, taking their images, mirroring back the photos to them on my camera’s screen, and waving goodbye. It’s an intuitive, albeit a highly selective process, often with little rhyme or reason as to whom I stop or where it might happen. Someone or some place will catch my eye for any number of Proustian or archetypal reasons. It depends. Sometimes I’ll stumble upon the right person, but if the environment cannot support his/her presence, I pass. Conversely, finding the right location might mean waiting up to an hour before the right person intersects. (I hesitate to use the word “right,” though enjoy its ambiguities enough to retain its place in this text.) There isn’t much magic to it or preplanning, though serendipity has its place in the recipe, as does a level of mindfulness; awareness of discreet moments in time and space factor largely into the success or failure of any given image. But this much is certain: a majority of our lives are constituted of daily confluences that momentarily define a moment, a movement, even an era, never to be seen or realized. I am an interrupter, or perhaps more apt, a stapler, ensuring that a few of these moments, however pure or constructed, don’t completely evaporate. These are not extraordinary moments of strife, war, or global upheaval. These images are instead a testament to the power and authority that lay within the incidental, the common place, the everyday. In this way, I’m interested in fastening person to place, or vice versa, to see what kind of dialog emerges between the two. Over time a body of work aggregates, synthesizing something of a thesis: Who are these people? Where do they live? How do they occupy their time, or how is their time occupied? How do these images speak to each other? What might they say to an audience a month, year, decade or generation from now? Will the staple hold, and if not, is it because the person or the place has disappeared, or both? And what does it mean to put an image of a Tibetan herder next to a Manhattan hipster? And what capital will these social categories gain or lose as the world shrinks and/or culturally homogenizes? Questions aside, I venture to say that this body is neither with nor completely devoid of thesis.
As I write this, a ginger root that I potted about a month ago has sent a stalk straight into the air. Though the rhizome is small enough to fit in my palm, the plant and I are now equal in height. Ginger’s thesis is thus a process, an emulation of countless gingers before it, a variation upon a theme, a model for future gingers. The same can be said for this body of work. It is rooted in the likes of Atget and Sander, though sprung from a contemporary loam, and still growing. The intimate dance between complete strangers, and the relationship between person and place is what intrigues me most: how they define, defy and/or deny one another is never known to me prior to the shoot. It’s only afterwards, during the contemplative quietude between image and onlooker do the stories begin to emerge, where the studium gives way to the punctum, to borrow from Barthes. In that puncture, somewhere, is the lilt and give that keeps me hitting the streets, asking the parenthetical other, “Excuse me, may I take your photograph?”
I wear my camera as a contact lens, correcting for nearsightedness, tunnel vision, color blindness and a myriad of other personal affects that distort my perception and understanding of the world. Moreover, I think of “contact” in the context of intimacy, and in the process of photographing a stranger on the street, I briefly invite the life of the parenthetical other to overlay my own while preserving his/her preferred level of transparency or opacity. During this brief encounter between photographer and photographed, usually lasting no longer than a minute or two, the shutter blinks and for a moment I am in love and life is in focus. I no longer care to think of the lens as a light gathering device, but rather as a mindset, a frame with porous borders, a glass marbled with multiple fractures and contradictions. My own otherness falls into perspective, leaving me no choice but to relinquish the notion that I am a fixed point upon which everyone else is valued or devalued. No longer the center of the universe, I focus my gaze on the fluidity of being, and rush headfirst into the present tense. ♦
Gary Joseph Cohen is an award-winning artist and teacher of foundation and media arts (and sometimes poetry) at The Calhoun School in his hometown of Manhattan, New York. His photography, poetry and literary endeavors can be found in Best New Poets 2005 and 2006, Isotope Journal of Literary Science and Nature, Parthenon West Review, Lana Turner Journal of Poetry and Opinion, World Vision Magazine (China), Euphony, Blue Earth Review, The Pinch, and elsewhere. He served as The Badlands National Park Artist-in-Residence in 2003, and a portion of his poetry manuscript from the residency is in the permanent collection of the United States National Park Service. Three-time recipient of the Claudia Curfman Professional Development Grant (The Calhoun School), his travels throughout Asia and the U.S. have provided the groundwork for his environmental-portrait exploration of person and place. Both his poetry manuscript Tomorrow Square and photographic monograph Contact Lens seek publication.To learn more about the Contact Lens project and how you can help support its vision and scope, please visit kickstarter.