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Date: Mon, 19 Nov 2001 15:50:59 -0800
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: Another Look at the Young Bob Dylan
Another Look at the Young Bob Dylan
by Blake Eskin
New York Times Service
Tuesday, November 20, 2001
NEW YORK - In 1962, Bob Dylan visited John Cohen at his Manhattan loft on
lower Third Avenue. As a member (playing banjo and guitar) of the New Lost
City Ramblers, a group devoted to performing American music as it sounded
before the pervasive influence of radio and the record industry, Cohen had
released several albums on the Folkways label. He was also a photographer
with an assignment to take a portrait of Dylan, who had put out his first
record that year. "Bob didn't think much of the photographs, and his
management didn't like them," Cohen recalls. "I put them away."
While Dylan went from local curiosity to international superstar, Cohen
pursued several creative paths. In addition to playing and collecting folk
music and taking photographs, he studied Peruvian textiles and took up
filmmaking. He taught photography at the State University of New York at
Purchase. But even as he encouraged his students he took a dim view of his
"The music's been out there working, but the photographs were just sitting
in drawers," Cohen, now 69, says in a gentle, raspy voice. "I had a good
time making them, but all these years I just felt there was no place for them."
It wasn't until decades later, when his daughter returned from college with
a Dylan-besotted boyfriend, that Cohen took another look at his intimate
early images of the enigmatic musical legend. "I realized that all the
things he became are in those pictures," he says.
If it took Cohen time to recognize the value of his body of work - which
includes portraits of Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Red Grooms and other artists
active in the Downtown scene of the 1950s and ^A'60s, as well as glimpses of
life in the Appalachians and the Andes - collectors and curators have taken
even longer to appreciate it. In recent years, however, Cohen's prints
have found a place in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum
of Art in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.
With the publication next month of his first monograph, "There Is No Eye,"
and a touring retrospective by the same name opening on Jan. 18 at the
Photographic Resource Center in Boston, Cohen makes a strong case that his
pictures should be remembered not only for the subjects they document but
for their formal qualities.
"There Is No Eye" (the title, which Dylan attributes to Cohen, comes from
the liner notes to the 1965 Dylan album "Highway 61 Revisited") surveys a
career guided by a wide-ranging curiosity. Cohen, the grandson of Jewish
immigrants from Russia, grew up in Great Neck, New York, where he sought
refuge from suburban life in folk music and drawing. He first picked up a
camera while studying painting with Josef Albers at Yale. Another professor
introduced him to Robert Frank, whose photographs awakened Cohen to the
possibilities of the art form.
Frank and Cohen became neighbors and friends. Once, in the early 1970s,
Cohen took Dylan to meet Frank. "Robert had made a film called ^A'About Me:
A Musical,' and he wanted Bob to see it," Cohen recalls. When they met, his
fame-haunted friends didn't say much to each other. "Bob saw the film, he
got back in the car," Cohen says. "I'm sure Robert was disappointed."
By the time Frank invited him to take production stills for his Beat
generation film, "Pull My Daisy"(released in 1959), Cohen had taken his
Nikon to Harlem, where he photographed in gospel churches, and abroad;
after a trip to Morocco, Edward Steichen bought six of Cohen's prints for
the Museum of Modern Art. Yet there were few venues for photographers like
Cohen to show their pictures, and he didn't enjoy working for magazines or
advertising. "I had to make my own means of working independently," he says.
One strategy was to combine photographic forays with making field
recordings of folk songs and, in Peru, learning about indigenous textile
design. His interest in each form of creativity was an attempt to capture
the essential element underlying all of them. "It's not just the eye,"
Cohen says. "You get it in music, you get it in visual things, you get it
in words." He laments, however, that his multiple interests meant his
pictures were often regarded only as illustrations of music or weaving. "I
always had other aspirations for my photographs, and I don't think very
many people saw what I was putting into them," he says.
Museum acquisitions and "There Is No Eye" may well change that, but in any
case Cohen has grown accustomed to waiting for others to catch up with his
enthusiasms. Old-time music once had a cult following, but the Coen
Brothers' film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" introduced it to a broader
public last year. Hardly anyone bothered with Andean weaving when Cohen
took an interest in the 1950s, but in March, the Textile Museum in
Washington is mounting "Hidden Threads of Peru," which relies partly on
Cohen's scholarship and includes objects and photographs from his collection.
With recognition coming from several directions, Cohen still fits his
darkroom sessions around tours with the New Lost City Ramblers,
consultations with the Textile Museum and other projects.
"It's a little confusing to me right now," he says. "Instead of following
one of the many streams, they are all rolling along."
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