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October 13th, 2010
Museum Presents Exhibition of 40 Years of Photography by Mark Cohen

(October 23, 2010 - February 2011)

Working primarily in and around the small Pennsylvania cities of Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, American street photographer Mark Cohen (b. 1943) photographs people and places encountered at random. In the 1970s he distinguished himself from older peers such as Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander by pushing aspects of street photography to extremes, producing pictures with little evident meaning and jarring compositions, such as faces or bodies only partly included in the picture frame. This exhibition of nearly 70 black-and-white and color photographs made during the past 40 years reveals elemental aspects of human behavior and urban life. Mark Cohen: Strange Evidence is on view October 23, 2010 through February 2011 in the Levy Gallery of the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The exhibition will primarily focus on Cohen’s images from the 1970s, through which he first garnered international attention. He employed a wide-angle lens with a long depth of field that permitted him to range very close to his subjects. He also frequently used a flash, such as in his 1975 print Flashed Man on Square, which accents a lone figure sitting on a park bench, or Flashed Man, Scranton, Pennsylvania, from 1988, which captures a man’s startled expression in an aggressively utilized flash.

Cohen rarely used his viewfinder, instead positioning the camera away from his body as he quickly walked by subjects, snapping pictures. This mitigated the aggressive quality of his encounters, but also introduced a strong note of chance into his images, leading to seeming compositional mishaps, such as Jacket/Rain Drops from 1978, featuring a figure from neck to waist that completely fills the frame. Yet while the photographs frequently appear to have no clear subject, Cohen captures small details that transmit the emotion of the photograph: women clutch at bags—as in Lizard Bag, 1973—or drag deeply on cigarettes while regarding the camera with a wary eye. His subjects often stare directly at the camera, looking both aggressive and vulnerable when caught on the sidewalk or in more private settings, such as Man Drying Hands, taken in a public bathroom in 1974.

“Mark Cohen captures essential qualities of modern American life in his photographs,” said Peter Barberie, The Brodsky Curator of Photographs. “His images are often unsettling, showing us a world filled with anxieties, accidents, and desires. He focuses on the reactions he elicits from his subjects through the act of taking a photograph, and often eliminates much of the surrounding scene from his pictures. This is one way his photographs function as strange evidence—they may not provide traditional sight cues or even clear motifs, but they distill crucial aspects of human experience and document the historical realities of the places he shoots."

Cohen has remained true to this format during the past four decades. Capturing a subject’s reaction to the act of photography remains a key theme in his work, although he has modified his choice of subjects somewhat in response to changing social mores and his own evolving relationship to people of different ages and genders. Throughout his work runs an ongoing evaluation of cities like Wilkes-Barre, where he lives. Although historical documentation is not Cohen’s aim, the city’s changing character is charted through photographs that depict the public square, the bus stop, outdoor summer gatherings, and many backyards.

Mark Cohen: Strange Evidence is the most extensive survey of Cohen’s work since a 1981 exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Curator: Peter Barberie, The Brodsky Curator of Photographs
Location: Levy Gallery, Perelman Building

For more information: Mark Cohen: Strange Evidence

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