Creative Quarantine: Photographer Alan Cohen

Fort De Vaux, Verdun, France, 1998, Four Panel, 2021 | ©Alan Cohen

Photographer and Artist Alan Cohen sat down to talk with Esthetic Lens about what he has been up to. The past (almost) two years have provided many unknowns; Cohen shares the opportunities he’s taken to focus on his work, legacy, and some of the positive outcomes that have arrived amid all the uncertainty.

1. How are you holding up?

At any time in 2020, I would have talked in the first person about the fears built atop the pandemic’s unnormalcy because any step outside home had escalated risk attached to it.  But now, after my Pfizer vaccinations, recent booster, and the vaccinations of others, my thoughts have turned outward to friends and colleagues who might remain at greater risk from the contagion than I think I am.  Now, I worry about them.

Hong Kong, 2001, Diptych, 2021 | ©Alan Cohen

However, the pandemic did recenter how I view my work—both the finished and the as-yet-many-critically-unexamined images.  Everyone I’ve talked to about the pandemic expressed a then-and-now polarity about everything.  The pandemic seemed to require an immediate, full and utterly precise documentation of everything that might be archived–film, files, notebooks, key library books, lectures, travel documentation.  I sought to define my past–actions and intentions, on film and in files–while still thinking forward to new travels, exhibitions, publishing, and learning.  I felt the need to surround every image with the metadata that would accurately guide understanding without me being present.

Berlin Wall, Germany, 1996, Triptych, 2021 | ©Alan Cohen

2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?

Yes, but not in a way I would have anticipated.  I am of an age (78) that demanded a response to a real IF-I-AM-INFECTED premise: the thought that I might awake and have four compromised days until the end.  I began thinking about the mechanics of my art’s survival; about the software art institutions consider generic and useful.  It was quite sobering for me to abandon my lifelong optimism and consider end-planning. 

I am now shifting toward software that institutions, museums, and archives use so that they can open my files.  I had to, therefore, move away from some refined, elegant but isolating native Apple software.  My desktop now holds the software that I need and not just the elegant software I chose, long long ago, for its aesthetic, its convenience, and its evident logic.  

Pearl Harbor National Memorial, Hawaii, 2002, Triptych, 2021 | ©Alan Cohen

3. What are some of the unexpected creative things or projects that have developed for you while navigating the current state of the world?

Organizing and unifying an analog past while learning and stumbling forward with Google’s and Adobe’s newest, largest and best software becomes harder when the software choices and possibilities of use both expand exponentially.  I gave up all darkroom work about eight years ago and learned that reframing a refined, effective film-based system is neither quick nor comforting even though it is thrilling to look back while simultaneously moving forward.

Buchenwald Concentration Camp, Germany, 1994, Four Panel, 2021 | ©Alan Cohen

4. Who do you wish were still with us to provide pointed commentary on what we are collectively experiencing and why?

The list of deceased influences is long because I am old and our century was extraordinary.  I was mentored by direct and indirect contact with wonderful thinkers.  I count among them Sol LeWitt*, Aaron Siskind*, Jacques Derrida*, Adam Zagajewski*, Françoise Truffaut, Dennis Oppenheim*, Garry Winogrand*, Mira Schendel, Eavan Boland, Wisława Szymborska, Jean Dubuffet, Zbigniew Herbert, Denis Cosgrove*, Ellen Auerbach*, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Heinecken*, Pauline Kael, Martin Luther King Jr., Etienne Marey, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar*,  Berenice Abbott*, Allard Lowenstein*, Arthur Siegel*, Ray Metzker*, Nathan Lerner*, Gerhard Sander*, Paul Valéry, Moss Cohen*.  

[Note:  * signifies direct personal contact]

Lava, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, 1999, Four Panel, 2021 | ©Alan Cohen

5. What artists, performers, writers, have you come across recently that have created poignant work about where we are at right now?

If I can extend the last question a bit, I want to include those still with us: Susan Walsh*, Rita and Paul Mendes-Flohr*, Carol LeWitt*, Daniel Libeskind*, James Wood, Helen Vendler, Barbara Klemm*, Richard Serra, Jonathan Bordo*, Aron Gent*, Victoria Benham*, Julia and Alan Thomas*, Robert Alter, Mary Jane Jacob,* Sugar Ray Leonard, Seymour Hersh*, W.J.T. Mitchell*, Anne Rorimer*, Timothy Snyder, Linda Hirshman*, Brice Marden, Annie and Lewis Kostiner*, Paul Greenglass, John Vinci*, Richard Long, Amelia, Lillian and David Hohf*, Albert Carnesale*, Jordan Schulman*, Rachel Herman* and Françoise Meltzer*.

Death Valley, California, 2002, Diptych, 2021 | ©Alan Cohen

6. What are you looking forward to?

Life, unmasked travel and the conquest, with ease, of needed digital software.

Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island, Australia, 2008, Diptych, 2021 | ©Alan Cohen

Alan Cohen grew up in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. After earning a degree in nuclear engineering at North Carolina State University and working at Argonne National Laboratory, doctoral program study began in thermodynamics at Northwestern University. In 1969, he began photographing and eventually left the sciences to study photography. As a graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, he studied with Aaron Siskind, Arthur Siegel, Garry Winogrand, Charles Swedlund, Ken Josephson, and Joe Jachna. He was awarded a M.Sc. Photography degree in 1972.

Married to Susan Walsh, Cohen lives in Chicago and was a member of the visiting faculty at Columbia College Chicago’s Department Of Photography. Cohen was an Adjunct Full Professor in the Art History, Theory, Criticism Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1987 until 2012.

Alan Cohen at Effigy Tumuli, Ottowa, IL | Photo Credit ©Jordan Schulman

Alan Cohen can be found online at his website and on Instagram.