A few weeks ago, Gallery 100 bade farewell to the Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition and reverted back to its usual role: a permanent photographs gallery, displaying works that narrate a history of photography. Since 2015, this broad brief has been tackled thematically, with the focus now on ‘the body’. The display opened on March 11th and will be on view until February 2017. It features 105 works from over 60 photographers, all of whom explore the human form in pictures dating from the 1840s to the present day. The works have been selected by Curator Susanna Brown from the 500,000 photographs in the V&A’s collection. In 1852 the V&A became the first museum to collect photographs. Its collection now numbers among the most important in the world and forms the UK’s national collection of the art of photography.
Around halfway down the east wall hangs a pair of photographs by Mark Cohen (b.1943): Jump Rope and Belly Button Cartwheel, both from 1975. They are displayed alongside Žehra, a 1969 photograph taken by Josef Koudelka (b.1938). Both artists depict children in what is perhaps a less expected iteration of the theme of the body, which might traditionally be interpreted as ‘the nude’, or even ‘the female nude’. These images of childhood are compelling, as they represent the transience, resilience and physicality of the body, without referring too much to sexuality. That is not to say the images infer only innocence, rather that notions of sexuality and gender roles exist within the broader themes of growth, coming-of-age and childhood. The interaction of Cohen’s street style with Koudelka’s more documentary style is interesting. They complement one another in their proximity, invoking an active thought process that causes one’s eye to flicker between the images. The lithe musculature of Koudelka’s boys speaks to the smooth stomach of Cohen’s cart-wheeler. They are connected by a common theme of adult burdens on children; the flexing boys emphasise pressures of masculinity on youths, while Cohen’s photographs highlight the presence of the male gaze on adolescent girls.
Mark Cohen is a well-known street photographer who has spent most of his career photographing in Pennsylvania. He is known for his cropped, gritty portrayals of the streets inhabited by the working people in towns such as Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. The accessibility of street photography makes it a very appealing genre to me. It is a record of the material world – this world, our recognisable, everyday world – just through the lens of another’s eye. At its best, a street photograph presents an immortalised moment of societal interaction. It invites an awareness of individuals and empathy towards situations that would go unnoticed in day-to-day life. A common misconception is that street photography is easy to achieve; that one can venture into the street clutching a camera and immediately, almost accidentally, capture humorous or poignant or precise scenes. In reality, it is not easy to achieve an interesting street photograph. Each image is deliberate, intentionally framed, with the photographer often having to wait very long periods of time for a compelling shot. Endurance is key, as consistent attention must be trained on observing the immediate world, and a quick eye is essential. Remaining inconspicuous has also been an issue. For some, such as Garry Winogrand (1928-1984), being discreet was not of particular concern and he was known to get into altercations, especially when photographing women in front of their male companions. For Paul Strand (1890-1976), it meant employing a dummy camera lens while covertly using the real one tucked under his arm. Here, Cohen utilises his trademark technique of shooting with his arm outstretched, away from his body and, crucially, without looking into the viewfinder. While this technique undoubtedly contributed to a signature aesthetic, it is plausible that the practice might have originated in a desire for subtlety.
Cohen explores the idea of anonymity at a complex level. He plays with remaining anonymous in his use of the camera and he also renders his subjects anonymous in his use of cropping: we are confronted with a headless figure, a close-up view of a stomach. The result is that, as viewers, we are deprived of markers that are often used to identify people. Consequently, the subjects themselves become the markers, as their essence transcends the individual and becomes emblematic of broader subjects; the two girls in these photographs come to represent all girls, the street comes to represent all streets. By taking away these indicators, Cohen elevates his subjects above their material surroundings, transforming them into something familiar and relatable, despite their individual origins or lifestyle.
Cohen’s use of cropping is very precise. When making these decisions, he must ensure that the remaining frame is dynamic enough to both imply a broader scene and to justify the crop. We are forced to focus on details, such as the orientation of the cart-wheeler’s stomach. If the orientation were upright, the image would lose its power of implication, whereas, upside down, we can guess she is in active movement. Then, this is affirmed by the title, because, while Cohen removes the identity of his subjects, he also assigns some fact. He breaks down our judgmental qualities by removing obvious identifiers and then, once we are drawn in with an open mind, re-introduces clues alluding to the content of his photographs. On closer inspection, the image featuring the skipping child contains signs of a lower-income neighbourhood; her socks are dirty, the fence in the background is unkempt. However, on noticing these details we are already empathetic. Cohen has controlled our processing of these scenes, subverting our habits. This is one of the successes of street photography; the ability to make viewers overlook their preconceptions and understand a different perspective of the world.
Another result of Cohen’s use of cropping is a feeling of unease. The harshly framed photographs evoke a sense of voyeurism, an inappropriate gaze and the violence of dismemberment. However, armed with the knowledge of how Cohen uses his camera, should we trust these judgements? Are these feelings just a by-product of his practice? This is another success of street photography: provoking viewers to question their opinions and justify how they were reached.
Next to the pair of Cohen photographs hangs an image by Josef Koudelka. It depicts children from the Roma community in the town of Žehra, Slovakia, in a documentary style of photography differing to that of Cohen’s streets. The implication of Cohen’s photographs is replaced with a factuality in Koudelka’s. As part of a larger series of images documenting the Roma communities in Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, France and Spain, Koudelka focussed on portraying the identity of the Roma, and on capturing the spirit of these communities, who are often perceived as private. The presence of another is evident, which makes the subjects less relatable. However, Koudelka too plays with subversion and, despite the documentary nature of his work, also undermines our instincts to a degree. There is not much contextual information provided in the title, only ‘Žehra’. This means one must already be familiar either with Roma customs or with specific central European geography to identify the content instantly. Furthermore, whilst Koudelka’s series in its entirety gives particular insight into the lives of the Roma, this image does so via universal themes; masculinity among young boys and competitiveness among children are common in many societies. It becomes apparent that we are all human, connected in various stages of life and therefore able to recognise parts of ourselves in others, regardless of our differences. Those who give Koudelka’s image enough contemplation will arrive at a similar point of empathy to that which Cohen’s photographs inspire.
A group of 12 photographs by Mark Cohen were recently acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum with the generous support of the Photographs Acquisitions Group. They are available to view in the Prints and Drawings Study room. Follow this link for more information on visiting the Study Room.