Dark Knees

EVEN MARK COHEN’S early photographs look utterly contemporary. Most of the images in this volume, which spans 1969 to 2012, date from the ’70s and early ’80s, but their seemingly haphazard visual style—oddly canted perspectives, complex compositions, and a general fixation on disconnected parts of people and things—suggests nothing so much as the smartphone videos that are now a mainstay of our journalistic and voyeuristic consumption. Cohen seems to have anticipated this disorienting jumble of perspectives when he began taking photographs in his native Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, decades ago. He lived in that depressed but once-thriving industrial locale until recently, but he doesn’t serve up a predictable sociological portrait of a coal town gone bust, replete with grim faces and facile contrasts between empty factories and, say, Poconos-hotel billboards. That might indeed be the big picture for Wilkes-Barre, but Cohen prefers an idiosyncratic approach—one that intimates far less definable truths. The subjects of his chiefly black-and-white portraits are rarely shown whole: On display are many pairs of legs, often those of young girls; hands holding a ball or hanging loose; a young man’s bare chest draped with a braided chain; a woman’s splayed hair, her face obscured. The subject has been atomized, and we have to infer not just a town and its larger world but even the rest of the person being photographed.

Mark Cohen, One Red Glove, 1975, dye-transfer print, 11 × 14".

Cohen’s handwritten titles read like the inventory of a warehouse of daily life: Three Crumpled Papers on Steps, Girl Has Gum in Mouth, Laughing Man’s Teeth, Pink Jumprope, Covered Shovel, and the title that gives the collection its apt name, Dark Knees. A metaphoric density attends such images, each one a riddle whose solution is the narrative context we supply. Some solve readily—Flashed White Socks presents just that, with all due erotic connotations—while others yield clues reluctantly: Lashed Siding/Shoulder shows a figure whose gender may be gleaned from undistinguished details like a bit of purse strap or the back of a blouse. On first glance, though, the only indication that this is even a person, and not an abstract study of line and form, is the barely noticeable vaccination mark. The representational and emotional import of One Red Glove (above), one of the few color shots in this book, is immediate, and strikingly so. Yet the photographer withholds more than he offers, asking us to speculate about the owner of these aged hands, the location of the other glove, and the reason behind such a tight and prayerlike clasp. While these off-kilter, often urgent images require close inspection, they also require that perspectival judo we’ve grow adept at performing—the world now comes to us as it does in Cohen’s photos, in bits and pieces, vertiginously framed and enigmatically subjective.

Albert Mobilio