Thursday, 23 April 2009

How not to Photograph: Dr Frankenstein's Make Yourself a Monster Workshop Clean-Up Shoot

picture: Colin Pantall - I'd lose my head if it wasn't attached


The town of Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvannia will always have a place in my heart. Partly because the Bechers made some of their loveliest industrial landscapes there. But mostly because Mark Cohen made his Grim Street pictures there.

By day, Mark Cohen is a gentleman, a gentle gentleman. By night, he transforms into a photo-psycho, flashing his rangefinder into people's faces in true shoot-and-run style. This isn't big city in-your-faceness, Cohen does this in a moderately sized town where there is little anonymity and no camouflage from the big crowds (see him at work here).

The results are marvellous disjointed affairs where limbs, torsos and heads are lopped off in the name of Cohen's art.

I love it because Cohen's decapitations and dismemberments are a pyschological depiction of both Cohen's own neuroses and fears as well as a portrayal of industrial America as a fractured, dysfunctional society. The pictures are part of a package in other words - a package where the photographer, the location and the subjects and their body parts all fit together in a coherent, if somewhat mysterious and bleak, discourse. It's Frankenstein photography, with Cohen as the body-snatcher, cutting off bits of people with his camera, only to unite them in his Dr Frankenstein moment, when that little spark of Cohen psychosis is enough to bring the monster of the parts to terrifying life.

For the rest of us, those of us who aren't photographing in this manner as a way of life, dismembering your subjects so you end up with a series of pieces of arms and legs, bodies and heads is an exercise in Frankenstein photography - but the kind where there is no lightning spark, where all we end up with is a bin full of rotting body parts - random fingers, eyes and legs that have all been cut off for no reason discernible to man or beast.

So we should all do ourselves ( and each other) a favour and stop with the photo-mutilation. Enough already! No more cut off hands and legs. Except when they have rings on them, or they belong to babies. Because that's different!

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