In 2002 when Lynne Cohen had her retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada, the Gallery also came out with a nice big book No Man’s Land, mainly of her later colour work. My interest had been caught by a couple of magazine articles about the show so I eventually forked out for the book. When it arrived I had a mild sense of déjà vu and it took me a while to realise why. After digging around in my (still unpacked from a move) book boxes I realised that, years before in 1987, I had bought a copy of her first book Occupied Territory. It was a bit of a revelation to see that my interest in this sort of minimalist urban/architectural photography went back that far.
Over her career Lynne Cohen has explored all sorts of modern interiors (and almost exclusively interiors) – in one sense every day yet never mundane. Strange, often bordering on surreal, yet none the less ”real” - the interiors of men’s clubs with collections of strange ephemera, frighteningly decorated living rooms, lobbies, and more recently institutional spaces, all empty of people, yet echoing strongly with their presence – veterinary schools, emergency response training rooms, Army Staff College war rooms, spas, psychology labs…
I know that some find her work too clinical (and while she certainly out Düsseldorf’s the Düsseldorf school in terms of Post-Neue Sachlichkeit… I think some viewers miss the subtle humour in her work), but I find the work to be just far enough this side of clinical to be intriguing, fascinating and it draws me in. What exactly are these places? What goes on here – and is it as secretive and as frightening as its potential suggests. Photographs of extraordinary ordinary places
There are also some interesting touches – I like the way some of her bigger prints, both colour and black and white, were framed in formica, which is really a sort of “fake” architectural material (made from photographs) and often chosen by Cohen to the mimic a particular surface or material in the photograph. She also went from contact prints in her earlier work to big prints for some of the later colour work (though she has some useful things to say about big for big's sake and the problems with making some work too big)
Here are a couple of extracts one of the interviews on her site (which are very worthwhile reading - here and here):
...Eerie, and yet you are drawn to just such places. How do you explain this attraction?
I have an approach/avoidance reaction to them. Sometimes I find them seductive, sometimes repulsive, but mostly I have mixed feelings. Perhaps it would be best to say I‘m drawn to visual and ideological contradictions and deceptions. I‘m fascinated by boundaries that are more conceptual than real, by ambiguous messages, by things that don‘t make sense, by bad logic. It is strange how frequently things aren‘t quite what they‘re cracked up to be ? how often pictures of exotic places are unconvincing, how often luxury resorts resemble psychiatric hospitals and how often psychiatric hospitals look like health spas. The picture of a blackboard with a diagram of arrows going in two directions (opposite) sums it up for me. Is it a sketch for a bizarre philosophy of life?...
Sometimes it seems as though you are more interested in small details than in the big picture.
I‘m intrigued by architectural details and hardware. It‘s strange, but I‘ve never seen an electrical outlet that is level. There are people travelling around in spaceships but no one can properly install an outlet. Some people might find this consoling but I find it disturbing. Also I‘m acutely aware of things like surveillance cameras, ‘No Exit’ signs, fire alarms and grimy stains around light switches. Sometimes objects look pathological, sometimes not. It often seems as if someone could be shouting at me from the other side of the air vent. And why do heating units so often seem to be keeping an eye on things? They have peculiar human attributes ? they seem to want to join in rather than just sit there. Things like that amuse me: outlets, exhaust grates and office paraphernalia that look like minimalist sculpture. Sometimes the hardware speaks for itself; but sometimes it functions as a metaphor for something else. Every room is a conceptual piece, an installation in real time.