Posted on 08 June 2020
Roeg Cohen in Paris by Lea, courtesy of the artist
In conversation with photographer Roeg Cohen
on how life can change through a camera lens
To see a photograph is not simply to look. Rather, the encounter prompts an ingestion, a taking in of stories sometimes told by accident, often captured in moments of pure fortuitousness. You don’t see a photograph the same way you do a road sign, a map or an ingredients list. ‘Taking pictures is savoring life intensely,’ French photographer Marc Riboud once said, ‘every hundredth of a second.’ To sit with a photograph can feel much the same, a savouring of the subject matter that often prompts an unrooted reminiscence of a time you can’t always explain. Not all photographs elicit this kind of response, of course, but Roeg Cohen’s do.
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Cohen is a New York-based artist whose body of work is composed of fine art portraiture and landscape photography. Despite being called to work behind the camera later in life—having never intended on pursuing any kind of creative discipline—the photographer has taken to the practice with the kind of intuitive knowing that can never truly be taught. Proving that taking on a craft has nothing to do with being told to take a certain course, Cohen has been feeling his way along his creative path since his thirties, allowing him to connect with his subjects sans the structured technical thinking that can sometimes sabotage a shoot. Free of formality and often imbued with a tender balance of unapologetic romance and quiet rigor, Cohen’s work transcends the realm of genre into that of an arresting intimacy.
‘I was torn between the fear of getting too close to people and another force that egged me on to get a closer look,’ Marc Riboud once wrote. For Cohen, both the physical and spiritual elements of approaching the subject—landscape, human, other—are equally as complex; involving a (mostly subconscious, sometimes purposeful) shift of one’s own state of being.
Ashley by © Roeg Cohen, courtesy of the artist
KATHRYN CARTER: What is your earliest memory of taking a photograph?
ROEG COHEN: I started teaching myself photography in my 30s. I recall taking pictures earlier in my life, but I don’t have any significant memories [of] doing so. Though, I was going through an old family photo album recently, and there’a a polaroid of me, taken when I was around 6-years-old. In the photo there’s a polaroid camera in front of me, and I’m holding a picture—I seem to be showing it off with pride. I have no memory of that moment, but in looking at it now, it seems prescient.
Indeed, perhaps a part of you already knew the course you’d take. Was it always your intention to pursue a career in the arts?
Definitely not. I’ve never been good at planning my life that far ahead. I’m also not actually sure I have a career in the arts.
To label one’s career seems largely pointless, anyway. Despite your never intending to pursue an artistic path in life, how much has photography become a part of your daily life?
It’s a consistent part, in one way or another.
Since it has become a more consistent part of your day-to-day, would you describe the art of photography as a core part of your life purpose?
It’s my primary tool for getting things out of me, it’s the thing that keeps me busy. It still feels like a practice, though, in that I’m never accomplished enough to not have more to learn.
The learning never stops, no matter the discipline, I don’t think. American photographer Diane Arbus once said, ‘A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.’ Do you feel it’s fair to say that there are hidden things, somehow held safe, within your photographs, that you’ll never quite figure out?
Absolutely. The best pictures are the ones you never lose wonder for.
Rachel by © Roeg Cohen, courtesy of the artist
You work a lot in the realms of portraiture and landscape photography, producing pieces that are characterised by a distinct sense of intimacy. As observers of your images we do not look at your photographs, rather, we connect with them. How is it that you achieve this level of depth and evocation in your work?
That description makes me feel like I’m succeeding, thank you. I guess I achieve it by firstly creating and recognising a safe and comfortable environment to shoot in, and by having meaningful interactions with my subjects. When I’m taking the pictures I am standing in for the viewer who will see the images later. Hopefully what they see is a reflection of my interaction. Perhaps most importantly, though, is the decision of what pictures I choose for people to see. When I’m looking through all the frames, I’m looking for the one or two that I connect with.
In addition to photographing in the studio, you also often shoot in nature, with models as well as wildlife and horses. How does working in coastal and rural environments compare to working in indoor, urban settings?
The studio is so controlled, and nothing really happens without intention. That’s beneficial for certain kinds of pictures, but sometimes it’s stifling. Whereas driving around and looking for horses, and being in and around the ocean, is more exciting for me. All the elements are out of my control and serendipity has more room to interject.
Dolly by © Roeg Cohen, courtesy of the artist
An integral part of the creative process, I feel. And do you find you hold yourself differently when working with people, as opposed to how you’d carry yourself when working near animals? Or does your demeanor, your energy, remain much the same?
That’s a good question. Horses are the only animals I really photograph, but what I have learnt while photographing them over the years is that it requires being a bit ingratiating. Horses are sensitive to your energy, so you have to approach [them] in the right way. When I photograph people, I’m just myself really. I try not to bring ego into the room, though. I want the subject to be comfortable. I’m not comfortable until I know they are. So, I suppose both require a certain quiet energy, which I think, or at least hope, I already have.
Having experienced your work and spoken with you, I’d tend to agree. You’re also right about horses being incredibly sensitive creatures, what do you think it is about them that mesmerises you the most?
I could go on and on about that, which is an answer in itself, I suppose. I’m just drawn to them. Earlier I referred to the feeling of wonder, and that’s an apt description of how I feel about horses. I love how they move, and their smell, and the sounds they make. And the sensation of them leaning into you, which feels like a hug. And I love it when they absorb your feelings, too. Look a horse in the eye and you’ll see what all horses have seen throughout all time contained in its gaze. And we can only imagine what they’ve seen through our subjugation.
Beautifully-said, spending time with creatures who’ve witnessed so much always seems pretty sacred, perhaps because we’ll never know the extent of their experience. Speaking of looking things in the eye, does the life you’re looking at feel somehow different—clearer, stranger, unrecognisable—when you’re peering through your camera lens?
When you look through the lens it isolates what you’re looking at, which cuts out all the visual noise around it. That can clarify what you see. There have been many moments where I’ve looked through my camera lens and noticed things in people that I didn’t see when looking at them directly.
May by © Roeg Cohen, courtesy of the artist
American writer Susan Sontag once said: ‘All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.’ What does taking a photograph mean to you?
It’s an interesting quote because my understanding—and I might be wrong—is that Sontag was a subject in images more than a taker of pictures. Which makes me wonder if this is something that was said to her, or a conclusion she came to as a result of her relationships with photographers. My thought is that each picture has its own meaning, and that meaning changes over time.
You’re right, I believe Sontag was the subject of images on more occasions than she was the taker. I tend to agree with you, and feel that the meaning of a photograph has much to do with the connection made with it at the moment it is seen, in that the observer must bring a part of themselves to the image to experience its ever-metamorphic significance. Then again, I’m no photographer, either. Which is why I’m interested to know: tell me how it feels when you’re holding your camera?
It feels familiar if it’s a camera I’ve used a lot, if not, it [just] feels clumsy. I don’t have a special feeling of purpose when I pick up a camera. It’s just a tool, it’s pragmatic. And because it takes a lot of repetitive action for me to learn something, I feel most comfortable with a camera I’ve used a lot.
Landscape photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams once said: ‘You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.’ What would you say you bring to your craft?
Because I started photography well into my adulthood, and I’m an autodidact, I would say that I bring my life experience and an unacademic approach.
Judith by © Roeg Cohen, courtesy of the artist
In today’s cultural climate we are constantly immersed in imagery—commercial, creative, self-obsessive—taken by professional photographers but also by those who’ve claimed their role as an artistic influencer by sole virtue of owning a camera. How have you found your place in this visual over-saturation?
I try not to think about it really. The most important thing to me is the body of work I leave behind.
Speaking of leaving things behind, in addition to documenting life through imagery, you also write. Do both of these disciplines work in symbiosis to serve and satisfy your creative desires?
The cliché with photographers is that they are painters that don’t paint. I’m a writer that doesn’t write. I’ve never had the discipline to do it consistently and I’ve always been self-conscious about people reading what I write. So taking pictures became a good substitute, because I could express myself in a more nebulous way; hide my feelings in the image without it being literal. I’ve become a little more comfortable with letting my writing get out in the world, and I’ve started to occasionally incorporate it into some projects with images.
It’s nice that you’re allowing the release of your words to happen naturally. In times when we cannot feed our imaginations with external sources of sustenance and inspiration, how do you navigate the search within to fuel your creative drive?
The sources are always there for me. I read, I go for walks, I sit by the water and gaze at it.
Beautiful. And what advice would you give to someone who has always dreamt of making photography their life’s work?
Take lots of pictures. Look back on the work you made. Think about it. Then take more pictures.
I love that. Just one more thing I am curious to know. If you were evacuated from your apartment and you only had time to grab one photograph before you left, what would that photograph be?
Having lost a lot of things in my life, I’ve learned something. If you are holding on to an image, or an object, connected to someone you have lost, you have already survived the greater loss. That being said, I recently found a picture of my father and I when I was a baby. It was taken just before he died, and it’s the only picture of us together. I had always thought that none existed. That’s the first thing that came to mind when I read this question.
Roeg Cohen is a Canadian-born photographer who is currently based in New York City. You can explore his body of work at www.roegcohen.com