It Just Gets Out of Hand:
with Stephen Ellis
You’ve seen John Cohen’s photographs, though you probably don’t know it. His iconic images of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan are continually reprinted, but his photographs of lesser known folk artists are nearly as ubiquitous. Last winter, Anthology Film Archives mounted a festival of Cohen’s films, including The High Lonesome Sound (1963) and Mountain Music of Peru (1984), haunting documentaries of life and art in, respectively, remote Appalachian and Andean settlements. Cohen’s films combine a Walker Evans-like visual plainsong with an unerring ear for the fleeting musical moment.
John Cohen has participated in more influential cultural moments than might seem possible in one lifetime. Student of Josef and Anni Albers, brother-in-law of Pete Seeger and bandmate of Pete’s half-brother Mike, friend of Harry Smith, protégé of Robert Frank, early mentor and photographer of Bob Dylan, “discoverer” of renowned Kentucky balladeer Roscoe Holcomb, Cohen, now eighty-five, has been sparking the gap between avant-garde and popular culture for nearly seventy years. Sustaining this dual creative life has made Cohen a unique, unclassifiable figure—sometimes to the confusion of his less aesthetically mobile peers. In post-WWII America, few artists have made a richer contribution to the disparate worlds of visual art and vernacular music.
In March 2017, Ivy and David Sheppard and Stephen Ellis interviewed Cohen in his home north of New York City. The first excerpt of the interview, focusing on Cohen’s life in music appeared in the Dec/Jan 2017-2018 issue of the Rail. This second part addresses Cohen’s experiences in the realm of visual art.
John Cohen: So where were we? This is better than psychoanalysis.
Stephen Ellis (Rail): At your Anthology Film Archives retrospective, we discussed the way you’ve moved back and forth between the art world and the traditional-music world, which normally don’t have much contact with each other.
Cohen: To say the least. Thomas Crow, the art historian, has visited often recently and we talked for five hours at a time about that subject. In fact, I did a talk at NYU recently with him as interlocutor. He realized there were about four or five people who were crossovers between art and music.
Rail: I didn’t know he was interested in old-time music.
Cohen: Did you ever see his book, The Long March of Pop (2014)? It starts off with how the Museum of Modern Art’s original purpose was to show European abstract art and American folk art—I didn’t know that. I mean, I kinda knew it, but it had somehow disappeared. Then there’s a whole section about Harry Smith and his Anthology, then the New Lost City Ramblers, then Johns and Rauschenberg.
Rail: Because they were Southerners?
Cohen: Because of ideas that were in both Pop Art and country music. It’s really rich. Crow said Harry Smith was a great crossover, but there’re very few others who were in both worlds.
Rail: Was that a problem for you—moving between the two worlds?
Cohen: Not for me, but for the people around me. I couldn’t believe that all these progressive Lefties, all these people interested in traditional music, had no eye for art, for contemporary art—except for Thomas Hart Benton, maybe. That includes the Seegers. Pete was my brother-in-law; we talked a lot. I delighted in teasing his older brother, Charles, a radio astronomer, about Jackson Pollock, just to hear him fly off: “How can you call that beauty? There’s no truth in that! This is not art, this is chaos!” [Laughter.] It was very disturbing to their way of thinking. It only strengthened my belief in myself that these guys couldn’t see it.
Rail: The “woven” structure of Pollock’s paintings seems similar in some ways to the structure of the Peruvian textiles you’ve been interested in, and the forms of fiddle music and of folk weaving of that kind are so related.
Cohen: Yeah, but the dangerous word is “folk,” “folk weaving.” Jesus, what I’ve learned is that it’s a tradition that’s more than two thousand years old, still being handed down from mother to daughter. We can call it “folk” now, but they know things in their little fingers that none of us will ever be able to know because you have to learn it a piece at a time when you’re ready in your life.
Rail: But it was a problem, frustrating, not to be able to have that conversation with your musician friends?
Cohen: It was unbelievable. With Ralph Rinzler I was looking at the great English photographer, Bill Brant—I had books of his work—and Ralph would say, “That’s disgusting. It’s abstract. It’s crude.” I was shocked. I just had to assume that any reference to anything in contemporary art had no resonance for them. People would ask Mike [Seeger] about sources for the Ramblers—the Beat Generation, for instance. Mike would say, “I had nothing to do with them. I don’t know anything about them. I’m not interested in them.”
Rail: How about the other way around? Did you get the same kind of reaction from the art community if you brought up traditional music?
Cohen: Well, more from the word “folk” music; it was so looked down on. The main question Tom Crow and I talked about was how it was that in the late ‘30s and the ‘40s in New York, when both Abstract Expressionism and the folk music movement were in their formative years, they had nothing to do with each other. How could that be?!
Rail: How did you start making films? In art school at Yale you were studying Peruvian textiles, right?
Cohen: Josef Albers was my teacher. I’ve got his book here [the original editon of Interaction of Color (1963)]. To convey the way this guy taught: in color class we didn’t use paint at all; we got these packs of Color-aid paper, about 500 different colors. They went from darker to lighter, more intense to less intense. So one day Albers said, “Okay, now take out all your Color-aid papers, go through all 500 and pick out the ones you don’t like.” So we did. “Now go to that pile and put them together.” And those colors worked together so well! It’s the most vigorous combination possible. Because they all have something in common—you don’t like them! He did sneaky stuff like that. That’s why I have those Peruvian fabrics up there, in honor of him.
At Yale I started a musical group called The Hoots. We were actually practicing in the art school, in the lounge, when Albers kicked us out. [Laughter] He said, “Ve vill not haff dat.” And I said, “But, Mr. Albers, it’s serious study. We listen to traditional songs and try to learn from them.” “Ach, those boys and their mandolins at the Akademie in München! No, no! Ve von’t haff that!” [Laughter.]
Albers had an unusual physicality; he would dance out his ideas. In photographs he is always very formal and serious, but I made films of him jumping around in class, running around in ellipses!
Rail: Was he, or what you learned in his class, the reason for your interest in the Peruvian material?
Cohen: That was part of it. There were a lot of signals at once, while I was getting my MFA, about why I should go to Peru. As a visual-art student, you could take class anywhere in the university, so I made my own kind of curriculum. I took psychology, social psychology, sociology, along with art-history classes, which I really enjoyed. Then in my first term as an MFA student I took a course in New World archeology. That’s where the Peru thing picked up a certain kind of life. Albers had been throwing off clues. He was visiting Peru at that time, and his wife was world renowned . . . .
Cohen: Anni! So her presence and textiles were part of it also. There was a question that came up in that New World Archaeology class, and for my answer I had two original thoughts, maybe the only original thoughts I ever had. The question was: If you’re given a grant to do work in the New World, what would you do? I said I’d go to Guatemala or southern Mexico and see how the Native Americans live now, to see if it had any resemblance to the way the archaeologists tell us they lived. This was a very original thought. Later on I did a long paper about some Peruvian textiles which really intrigued me, and still do, because of their color decisions, their patterning.
I went to the Brooklyn Museum and saw one of them there. I stood in front of it and thought, I’m going to try to get what I can get from looking at it. And I thought, “Why did he or she decide to do this? Why did they set up this pattern and then why do they interrupt it?” This was one of those moments when time evaporates. I’m not sure if it was two minutes, five minutes, or an hour. I thought, I’m having a dialog with a weaver from 2,000 years ago, and none of the books I read can give me any answers. So then I combined that experience with the other idea: If I went to Peru and talked to the people who are weavers now, maybe I’ll get some insight. Very intuitive idea. Eventually Anni Albers told me, “That doesn’t make any sense, don’t do that.” I did it. One time, when I was already deep in there, she sent me a letter through Josef: “My wife says, limit the scope of your investigation.” I thought, too late, I’m already all over the place. [laughter.]
Rail: Because she thought the social or historical investigation didn’t have anything to do with the formal aspect of the weaving?
Cohen: Or to do with what she admired about the ancient weavings. How could any of that survive 2,000 years and the colonial era?
Since I had this question—Wouldn’t it be interesting just to go and talk to these people—I just set out to do it. I did it for six months on my own. It was amazing what I did, but I didn’t know! I would go from village to village and ask how they did their weaving. Of course they didn’t speak much Spanish, and neither did I. I got a whole bunch of really interesting information and processed it in my own way. I wrote it up and handed it in as my master’s thesis, and somebody on the review panel said, “None of us know anything about this subject, and there’s no way to check it. [laughter.] So we decided we’re grading you on how well it’s organized.” I thought, “Oh fuck!” I never thought about that, I was just trying to get the story out there. So, all right, they’ll fail me, but I don’t care, I had a great time. Well, I did very well; they made it clear. Turns out I did something unprecedented. Since then it’s become a field. People get PhDs to go to one village where I went for two days, and I still have earlier information. I’m not putting them down, but I was out there, really out there. And actually when the idea of going to Kentucky came into my mind, I thought, hey, if I did it in Peru, why shouldn’t I do it in Kentucky?
Rail: So when you were in Peru that first time you were 23 or 24?
Cohen: Oh, 1956…I’d be 24.
Rail: But were you already making photographs then? Cohen: Oh yeah. I had a double process. I would go from village to village and region to region trying to find out about the textiles and how they made the weaving, but also photographing freely for myself. So I was doing a conceptual research type thing, at the same time as doing a very personal photography thing. Rail: Were you filming too, or just doing still photography?
Cohen: I didn’t started doing films until 1962.
Rail: When you came to New York, you were living around 10th street?
Cohen: On Third Avenue next to 10th Street, on the same block.
Rail: Is that when you met Robert Frank and that whole gang?
Cohen: Oh yeah, that was a very important part of it, because my professor, my friend at Yale, was Herbert Matter.
Rail: Oh yes, I went to the Studio School when his wife, Mercedes Matter, was director.
Cohen: I was at that place even before she started the school. Mercedes, well, they lived on MacDougal Alley. Downstairs from Herbert’s studio was Mercedes’s space, and that’s where she would have life classes—not classes, really: we’d pitch in a certain amount, and she would have two models.
Rail: She had life classes before the Studio School?
Cohen: Yeah, I was so pleased to be invited, although I didn’t know why she’d invited me. But I was honored. Guston was there. [Jack] Tworkov sometimes came, Phillip Pearlstein. It was her circle of friends. I took all my pictures at the Cedar Bar, there, between professors I knew from Yale—James Brooks, [Conrad] Marca-Relli—and Mercedes’s circle of friends.
Rail: And Robert Frank was part of that because he was friendly with Herbert Matter?
Cohen: They were both Swiss. Herbert was one of the first people to welcome Robert and take him around New York and help him get set up.
Rail: Did Frank’s work influence your photographs?
Cohen: Of course! Way back in ’51 Life magazine had him in an article, “Young Photographers,” with four or five photographs. I had never seen anything like them. I didn’t know who he was. They were so different.
Rail: In what way were they so different? Because his work has been so influential, it’s hard to recover how the difference might have been perceived in that moment.
Cohen: The only thing that even resembled him was Cartier-Bresson…
Rail: The sense of immediacy, of being in the moment?
Cohen: Or just using a small camera and composing that way. I remember distinctly there were three or four photographs, and one had a white line going straight up 34th St., just a painted street line. I thought, this goes way back in space, but it’s also very flat; it’s like Barnett Newman’s paintings in a way, although I didn’t know Barnett Newman, but the idea. Then there was one picture of Mary nursing Pablo, their little boy, that was so personal, and Robert’s shadow, the photographer’s shadow, was on his wife. The cat’s feeding, the kid is feeding. I said, “Wow!” Then there’s the photograph hanging on the wall there [points], the guy with the flower behind his back. All the different people are joined in one shape. This incredible story. That was very moving to me. I said to myself, photography can be surreal and very structural and very avant-garde and deeply personal, all at the same time. But I wasn’t interested in photography then! I collected photographs, but, you know, I was raised before television. There was Life magazine, and so I was interested in photographs…but not in doing photography. And [Frank’s work] didn’t induce me to do it. It was a few years later I started.
Rail: Then what did make you start?
Cohen: They opened a little photography department in the [Yale] art school. One of my painter friends at Cooper Union became very involved in photography. He’d done some, and he showed me how to get into it. His teaching style was extraordinary—there was none.
Rail: How did you get in touch with Frank when you came to New York?
Cohen: For a while I was helping Herbert Matter make a film about black gospel music. I remember one time we were in Brooklyn, and Mercedes came by with this Swiss guy. She introduced us, and then they left. This was when Robert was working on The Americans. I’d gone to Morocco in 1955 and photographed there. I took those photographs to Robert and Mary. Mary liked the ones with horses because she was making sculptures of horses. Maybe I had known that Robert had been to Peru because he gave me the name of somebody there. When I came back I showed some of those photographs to them, and they really liked them. And that’s when I moved in next door.
Rail: The 10th St. photographs you showed recently are from that period?
Cohen: Yes. That was a very productive period
Rail: Is that when you worked on Pull My Daisy?
Cohen: Yes, that’s right. So Robert saw my Peru photographs. There were no [photo] galleries then. There was this one place called Limelight, which was a coffee house with a gallery in the back. I had a show there. That was the only photo gallery in all of America at the time. I think Robert told Helen Gee, who ran the gallery, about my work—I think.
Robert was making a film and asked me to cover it. I said, “Do you want me to take stills of individual scenes?” “No, just photographs.” Nobody gives you an assignment like that. I was totally free to move amongst them, to talk with the folks, the Beats, or not. It was very open, very easy.
Rail: That must have been quite a scene, making that movie.
Cohen: Yeah, it was. It was intense but just for a number of days. But as with so much else with the camera, if you have a job or something you’re trying to do, you can go places you wouldn’t go otherwise, because your excuse is, I’m trying to get a good picture. Of course, that’s what I’d been doing in Morocco and in Peru.
Rail: You started making films in ’62?
Rail: You have a very striking way of moving with the camera in those films. How did that come about?
Cohen: I don’t know what you mean.
Rail: For example, you often pan slowly across a scene before you come to rest on the subject. Or the soundtrack will be playing something well before the camera arrives on the source of the sound. There’s a certain choreography in the way you film things that’s very distinctive, a kind of slippage between the sound and the image, between the viewer’s expectation of how the scene is going to unfold and what actually happens. It’s never jarring, but always slightly different than what’s expected, which creates a kind of restrained suspense in the shot…
Cohen: It’s interesting to hear someone try to articulate the effect of what I do. I can only tell you how I got to that place.
Cohen: So the reason I made The High Lonesome Sound, which was my first film—I tested the camera out on Bob Dylan. Have you seen that footage? It’s the first footage of Bob Dylan. It’s in the big Scorsese film.
Rail: I have seen that.
Cohen: I had never made a movie before, but I’d made a lot of still photographs, so I sort of knew what I was after. I wanted to make a good image.Then I realized, once I got it all back, I had never thought that editing is part of filmmaking. I had never, ever thought of it! [Laughter.] Herbert loaned me a projector and a synchronizer—that’s how he made his films, with a little viewer. So there I was with the projector looking at this footage, and I didn’t know how to splice or cut or what even made a cut. I was a friend of Helen Levitt’s by then. She liked my photographs—and another guy named Sidney Meyers, one of the grand old men of New York filmmaking. They came to see my raw footage and sent me to a woman named Pat Jaffe, who helped me edit it. That’s where I learned about editing. She was pretty imaginative. She made some assumptions I wouldn’t have made. Like, in the middle of Old Baptist singing, where they’re lining out the old hymns, I make a cut, and she says, “Well, let’s picture the miners coming out of the mine; that’s the feeling of that music, so let’s put them together.” Whew! It wasn’t just images; it was continuity of sound as well. So a lot of imaginative things happened in the editing room.
Rail: And the Peruvian films came ten years later?
Cohen: Yeah, when I felt I knew how to handle the camera and synchronize sound and a tape recorder and all that. Only then, and even that was very foolish. When anybody goes that far out over the mountains, they double everything—two cameras and two sets of everything—I had one set of everything and one assistant who’d never worked on a film before. But we did it in Peru, and it was really interesting. Two summers.
Rail: One other photography question: Because of the subject matter, when I first saw High Lonesome Sound I thought about Walker Evans’s photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Is he a photographer who’s been important to you? In some ways Frank’s work is a reaction against what Evans did, formally anyway.
Cohen: Yeah, there’s always a tension between Frank and Evans. At the same time, Evans was a big supporter of Robert’s. It’s like [Alan] Lomax and me—not quite the same, but there’s an attraction and a big critique.
Rail: Did you know Evans?
Cohen: When he saw The High Lonesome Sound he wanted to know me! I had dinner with him several times, and we knew each other from then on.
Rail: What was he like in person? What sort of atmosphere did he create?
Cohen: Snob. Not in a bad way. Elite. Elegant. Bit of a dandy. I remember when I was teaching photography at Silvermine College of Art and I’d show the kids the photographs from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and I’d ask them what kind of a man do think Walker Evans was—this was in the late ‘60s—”Oh, he’s just a regular guy with blue jeans!” “No, he’s one of the editors of Fortune magazine!” [laughter]
Rail: Did you know Robert Schoelkopf, the dealer?
Cohen: Yeah. He was also an art historian at Yale.
Rail: Bob was helping support Evans in his later years. He complained that he’d give Evans $300, and Evans would take the money, buy a $300 pair of shoes, and then come back to Bob and say, “I’m broke!” [laughter]
Cohen: The dandy. This world of [photography galleries] is something. The more I see of how that system works—! There are some huge abstract ideas, like the “vintage print.” Have you ever thought about that? Most people think it’s like a bottle of vintage wine. But the definition of a vintage print they’ve arrived at is so cruel—it works to make a more exclusive, elite, high-priced market thing. The photographs in this box right here I made in 1957. I just printed them for the first time, never printed them before. They’re beautiful, but they’re not “vintage” because I didn’t make the prints at the same time I made the exposure. The sense of what I consider valuable in a photograph is shot to pieces by this whole process. I’m just psyching myself up to meet with people who look at your work and ask, “Is it vintage?”
STEPHEN ELLIS is an artist in New York who writes about visual art and music.