Born in Queens, John Cohen (1932-2019) was a photographer, filmmaker, writer, musician and musicologist. He studied painting at Yale with Josef Albers for an MFA in the 1950s. Cohen also researched indigenous Andean weaving in Peru. Although not a concentration in the art school at the time, he learned photography from Herbert Matter. His photographs of Peru would be the first photographic exhibition held at the Yale University Art Gallery, shown with textiles by Anni Albers. Parallel with his research in Peru, Cohen’s interests in old time music led him to make numerous field recordings in Appalachia. His recordings are an important document of rural culture, now held by the Library of Congress, contemporaneous with those collected by Alan Lomax and Harry Smith. He was a founding member of the famed The New Lost City Ramblers in 1957, which began a long career as a performer. His photographs of Roscoe Holcomb, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Elizabeth Cotten, young Bob Dylan and many others provide a visual window into this rich aural world. His 1962 film High Lonesome Sound became synonymous with that music. Herbert and Mercedes Matter would provide introductions for Cohen to the nascent artistic communities in downtown Manhattan when he moved to East 9 th Street and Third Avenue in 1957. The location would be fortuitous: dirt- cheap rents adjacent to the bars and artists’ clubs in Greenwich Village, and the scene of numerous artist-run galleries and performance spaces. Cohen lived next door to Mary and Robert Frank, who would ask Cohen to photograph his first film, Pull My Daisy (1959), co-directed with painter Alfred Leslie and written by Jack Kerouac. Cohen emphasizes the ambience and mood among the cast and crew, which includes Larry Rivers, Delphine Seyrig, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, David Amran, Richard Bellamy, and Alice Neel.
Cohen has had over forty solo exhibitions around the US since 1957 and his work has been central to group exhibitions presented at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Grey Art Gallery at NYU, the Museum of the City of New York, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and countless other institutions. His photographs are in the permanent collections of twenty institutions and his ninth monograph, “Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road” was released in September 2019. Cohen performed regularly with the Downhill Strugglers and was often called upon as a resource for scholars and researchers alike.