There Is No Eye: John Cohen Photographs, introduction by Greil Marcus. New York: PowerHouse. 200 pages. $45. BUY NOW

     
 

The photographs in this book, which primarily date from the decade between 1955 and 1965, are pictures of a lost world. While John Cohen is a very fine photographeróI had previously known him only as a member of the exemplary folk-revival trio the New Lost City Ramblersóit is his subject matter that clobbers you, before you fully register his artistry. The punning title is only half misleading (it comes from Bob Dylan's liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited: "You are right john cohen. . . . there is no eyeóthere is only a series of mouths"): Cohen certainly doesn't lack an eye, but he does practice some kind of willful self-effacement; subject is all. His style descends most obviously from Helen Levitt and Cohen's friend and erstwhile neighbor Robert Frank, and there are pictures here that fully deserve to hang beside theirs, but as poetic as it gets, style always cedes the stage to the people portrayed.

Cohen is a visual artist and teacher of visual arts by trade and a folk musician and song collector by avocation, and the pictures document his youth, mostlyóthe people he hung out with and the places he traveled to. The world of his youth seems much farther removed from our time than the forty-some calendar years that actually intervene. It is easy, looking at these pictures, to fall into the trap of ignorant nostalgia. It looks nearly Edenic, this world, a place free of cynicism, careerism, specialization, marketing, fashion, and all the other plagues wrought by the corporate takeover of life. The truth is somewhat more complicated, of course. For example, here's Bobby Dylan in 1962, in New York City for just a year and still outfitted as I Was a Teenage Railroad Tramp, his pants possibly held up by a loop of twine. The act is starry-eyed and idealistic, but it's also a career move, also marketing.

On the other hand, you may marvel at the fact that the folk singers, the Beat poets, the Abstract Expressionists, the makers of Happenings, the integration riders and ban-the-bomb marchersóCohen unaccountably omits the speed freaksówere all concentrated into the same neighborhood and actually talked to one another and showed interest in one another's activities, to a degree. The neighborhood was the Lower East Side, a much larger area before real estate agents began labeling individual segments for greater marketability. Those people were all there primarily because they had no money. When they got some, they left. Advertisers still considered St. Mark's Place a target area for hawking floor wax. Bohemians looked like everybody else, only shabbier.

 
     
     
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