Although better known as a filmmaker, Cohen has always taken still photographs. He has sometimes described working with the Polaroid format as a secret love. For this exhibition, Cohen scanned the originals and enlarged them, with the printing done under his supervision. There is almost no digital manipulation beyond removal of dust and scratches. Original Polaroids, examples of which are also on display, are roughly 7.6 cm square.
In the broader history of photography the small instant photograph was rarely considered a professional format, much less one suitable for fine art. Polaroids were more often used for taking snapshots creating I.D. cards, or even making damage records for insurance claims. Nonetheless, Polaroids became deeply, personally important for artists including Walker Evans, André Kertész, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Especially in the case of Tarkovsky, the little pictures are treasured distillations; they constitute not only a private sketchbook towards his films, but markers of his life, simultaneously humble and precious. These last qualities of the Polaroid are almost inevitable as each picture is a unique object with no photographic negative. It can be noted that Polaroids were also beloved by Andy Warhol, but in his case the photos were often taken with a flash, the subjects were usually celebrities, and the intention was to emphasize a careless, snapshot quality. For Cohen, it’s a different story entirely. He states: “It’s mysterious why a particular format calls one’s name, but for me Polaroids are somehow akin to miniature paintings. They are never all that sharp, pictorial space is curiously flattened, colors rarely natural, enigmatic flares and defects appear; but they somehow get to the heart of the subject in a way that is different from all other photographs. I enlarge them while carefully maintaining, even magnifying, their distinct qualities; they become even softer, more painterly, closer to memories than some definitive proof.”
Each pack of Polaroid film had only a few photos in it and they were expensive compared to other formats. This encouraged discipline and with the exception of a few prized targets, Cohen only took a few shots of a given subject — often just one or two. (This makes it the opposite of digital photography, which tends to beget a flood of images and in doing so risks making each one less special.) The past tense is used here because the film was discontinued in 2008, after which Cohen kept a small supply of the old film in his refrigerator. (The format was recently revived and is now being manufactured again although with entirely different chemistry — one such example is included in the show.) All in all, the pictures are stepping stones or, as in a folk tale, a trail of breadcrumbs by which one might find a way home. Much like Cohen’s films, these pictures take things seen at the periphery and move them to the center. They are non‐spectacular and unpretentious, but with a gravity somehow greater than their original tiny size might suggest. They are a sleep‐walker’s view the city, a human view of other humans. In com‐ mon with Cohen’s films, they may not stop time but they do allow it to rest a little, and for us to rest as well.
A film by Jem Cohen The Passage Clock: For Walter Benjamin in installation form will also be presented at the exhibition. An homage not only to Walter Benjamin but to two other time‐traveling artists and honorary expatriates — Chris Marker and Patti Smith. While fleeing fascism, Benjamin took refuge in Paris where the Bibliothèque Nationale became a home away from home. There, a manuscript was hidden from which is drawn much of what remains of his great unfinished life project,’Das Passagen‐Werk.’
Much of the narration for this film came from asking Patti Smith to read every definition of the word “passage” from the Oxford English Dictionary, which Cohen later edited and augmented with text of his own.