If you visit the Williamsburg studio of filmmaker Adam Cohen, you’ll find clues everywhere that point to his distinctive aesthetic. Monographs on Eugene Atget, Robert Frank, and other urban photographers crowd the bookshelves. Postcard reproductions of spare, almost abstract compositions by Goya, Giacometti, and Daumier ornament the wall beside his editing deck. The computer screensaver is an exquisitely beautiful 19th century photograph of a city ruin. And nowhere is there a copy of Variety in sight.
Cohen is an artist who works in film, making haunting, non-narrative “city poems” like the Super-8 films Blind Grace (1993), an intimate, street-level documentary shot in New York City before what Cohen refers to as “its current Disneyfication,” and Fire of Time (2000), on Barcelona’s red-light “Chino” district during its demolition. While capturing the hidden beauty of aging and disappearing neighborhoods, Cohen says he also strives to “get at deeper undercurrents and themes: city and time, entropy and history, memory and forgetting.”
Images of the city are in Cohen’s blood. His father, Sid Grossman, was a photographer in the New York school, who along with Robert Frank, William Klein, Gary Winogrand, and others found inspiration in the streets. For Cohen, their best work had a way of mixing documentary content with the photographer’s interior world, understanding that in reality one permeates the other. “For me, ‘documentary’ goes into this whole other area, which is mostly about poetry,” says the Manhattan-born filmmaker.
Largely self-educated in his craft, Cohen started out with a film class at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but that didn’t pan out; the young artist had his own singular ideas. He remembers cranking down the Bolex (camera) for a slow-motion shot of pigeons taking flight and attempting to film trees under street lamps at night. “They said, ‘Don’t even try it,’ he recalls with a laugh. “They told me it wasn’t technically possible. Oddly enough, both of those things are in my recent work.”
Cohen instead set off for Europe and got his education in the great museums. Now, twenty-some years later, he’s going back with his digital video and Super-8 cameras, gathering footage for the third film in his city trilogy. City Poem III (working title) “will be the most ambitious, the most difficult of them all,” Cohen says. Rather than focus on one neighborhood, this will capture a global cityscape, interweaving images from Naples, Palermo, Paris, Marseilles, Havana, perhaps Hamburg, and incorporating old footage of New York and Barcelona.
“I love places that people overlook. What most people see as unimportant slices of history are just the opposite to me,” says Cohen, as images of Cuba flicker on the monitor behind him: a biker navigates his peddy-cab through the traffic; weathered men play dominos inside an old Communist club; a lone figure walks by the massive arches of aging colonial architecture. “I try to get places that contain in-between people and in-between times,” he continues. “There are parts of Havana that are absolute throwbacks to Communist Eastern-bloc Europe. That thing where history is temporarily held off – that’s fascinating to me. It’s as though someone loaded history into a film viewer, and you could go backward or forward, watching these slices of time, yet feel the tidal wave of change about to happen. All the cities I shoot in the world have their own special variations on these themes. In the end time is the main character in my work.”
Cohen’s aesthetic is not about nostalgia, he insists. Rather, it’s about evidence of time’s passage. “The Italians have the most beautiful approach to ruins and monuments,” he says. “They grasp that ruins in the midst of a city are something that’s living, that decay is a central part of life. You don’t have to museumize everything or turn it into a theme park.”
As Cohen refines his feature-length opus, he’s finding additional ways to work with key frames from his films. He’s arranging them in handsome photo spreads for European exhibition catalogues, and he’s talking with a French publisher about a possible book of film stills. What’s more, he’s hoping that advances in digital imaging will soon allow him to create large photographic prints from his video footage. That seems a natural step for Cohen, who is equally at home in the world of photography and film, Atget and Chris Marker, frozen and unspooling time. Download the Weekend Workshop Agenda (.pdf)