Photo Books

John Cohen, William Eggleston

BY Vince Aletti, September 1, 2016

Cohen_Cheap_Rents_CovIn 1957, fresh out of Yale’s School of Fine Arts, John Cohen rented a loft in a building on East 10th Street, just around the corner from Robert Frank, in what he thought of as “the nowhere land between Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side.” Today, this is prime East Village real estate; back then, critic Harold Rosenberg wrote, the block between Third and Fourth Avenues had “not even the picturesqueness of a slum.” But Rosenberg was there because the block had also become home to a slew of artist-run galleries and an avant-garde performance scene that he couldn’t ignore. Cohen’s modest, charming Cheap Rents…and de Kooning (Steidl) is an insider’s view of that proto-Downtown scene and its denizens. He takes us to gallery openings, artists’ studios, poetry readings, and some of Claes Oldenburg and Red Grooms’s first happenings. At the Cedar Tavern, he puts us in the same booths with Franz Kline, Grace Hartigan, and Philip Guston while Frank O’Hara chats nearby. Cohen quotes Robert Frank, who became a close friend, musing on his own early work: “The distance between me and these photos is the past multiplied by everything that has happened.” But Cohen collapses that distance for his readers by keeping the book intimate and casual – a diary, not a memorial. That’s especially true of the chapter devoted to the making of Pull My Daisy, the film that Frank and Alfred Leslie made with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky, based on a fragment of a play by Jack Kerouac. Cohen was Frank’s assistant on this Beat Generation milestone, and his shots from the set and a nearby coffee shop capture all the players in action and at their charismatic ease. The 10th Street scene was short lived; by 1963, developers had moved in, and Cohen and the galleries were out. But if the art and performance that thrived there – work that John Elderfield, in his introduction, describes as “nonsectarian, hybrid, unpredictable in shape and form” – was transitional, it inspired a counterculture that changed the landscape of the New York art world for decades to come.

Prodger-F16---William-EgglestonWilliam Eggleston: Portraits (Yale) is the catalogue to an exhibition that continues at London’s National Portrait Gallery through October 23. It includes, as promised, a number of portraits, but many more pictures of people, like the one of a handsome young Memphis supermarket employee leaning over a bunch of shopping carts in a shaft of sunlight on the book’s cover. In his introduction, the NPG’s Phillip Prodger shrugs off the distinction between portraits and pictures of people by concluding: “Photography might be valued for its evidentiary qualities, but the things it shows us are innately superficial. As viewers, we cannot know the sitter as the photographer did, and he, in turn, knows them only through the prism of his own experience. The camera does not know them at all.” True enough, but countless photographers – Cameron, Brandt, Avedon, Penn, Arbus – have pierced that superficiality to make portraits that feel like revelations. On occasion, Eggleston does, too, but that doesn’t particularly seem to interest him. He says as much in the course of the clever, rambling conversation with Prodger and others that closes the book. Asked, skeptically, “Do you photograph a person the same way you photograph a parking lot?,” he answers, “I think so, absolutely.” When Prodger enquires about his approach to a subject, Eggleston says he never poses people: “I don’t say anything. I just take the picture.” Eggleston’s often extraordinary results, especially with friends and family, suggest there’s far more at work here, maybe some real fellow feeling. Still, there is a difference between genuine portraits and  fine pictures of people, and despite the book’s title, the latter far outnumber the former here.