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John Cohen

Professor Emeritus of Art+Design

The joint releases of powerHouse Books’ There Is No Eye: John Cohen Photographs and Smithsonian Folkways’ CD There Is No Eye: Music For Photographs, recordings of musicians photographed by John Cohen, bring together several threads of John Cohen’s work over the past 50 years. Although he is best known as a musician, his photographs and films have been recognized by museums, galleries, and at film festivals worldwide. His campaign for the recognition of traditional roots/folk music has led to the production of 15 films, along with hundreds of photographs and sound recordings. He has also made more than 20 recordings with the New Lost City Ramblers, along with related articles, liner notes, and interviews about music.

His work crosses many disciplines in both the arts and sciences and has been seen on NOVA PBS, at experimental film series, art museums, anthropology film festivals, ethnomusicology conferences, visual anthropology classes, Appalachian studies, the politics of poverty classes, and Andean music and textile exhibitions.

From the late 1950s on, he was involved with the emerging art world in New York City, and photographed Robert Frank’s production of the film Pull My Daisy about the beat generation, including Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg. He also documented the emergence of Pop Art, and the Cedar Bar, home place of the Abstract Expressionist painters. He was part of the music scene from which Bob Dylan emerged in Greenwich Village during the 1960s. After 1960, the major focuses of his work include Old Time Music (from the Appalachians) and Peruvian projects. He has filmed, photographed, and recorded Andean music in Peru, and made an early study and collection of contemporary Andean textiles.

John Cohen has continued to produce recordings of traditional American music, including “An Untamed Sense of Control” (Roscoe Holcomb), “Dark Holler” (Dillard Chandler), “The Lost Recordings of Banjo Bill Cornett”, “If I Had My Way” (Rev. Gary Davis), and “Back Roads to Cold Mountain.” He also worked with T-Bone Burnett as music consultant for the film Cold Mountain and appeared in Martin Scorcese’s film about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home.

The Smithsonian Network’s film Play On, John: A Life In Music explores John Cohen’s long involvement with traditional music, including vintage performances with the seminal old-time string band The New Lost City Ramblers, and live music performances with Pete Seeger, Rayna Gellert, and Bruce Molsky. Play On, John includes Cohen’s documentary photographs and selections from his documentary films, with a panorama of clips from his music films of Appalachia, including ballad singing in North Carolina and a parallel version from Scotland. His films of music from the Peruvian Andes are included with selections from the isolated Q’eros, and popular Huayno music of the migrants.

John Cohen’s body of work has been recognized in a wide range of fields: his photographs are in major museum collections and publications, and his award-winning films have been shown on PBS and BBC and at festivals worldwide. The sound recordings of the New Lost City Ramblers have received several Grammy nominations, and, along with his field recordings, have influenced many musicians—including Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder—and shaped the old time fiddle music revival.

John Cohen’s work invites interpretation. Although it has the appearance of a ”documentary style,” it reflects his own viewpoint as a visual artist. That his body of work is called cross-disciplinary, and he has been labeled a ”Renaissance man,” doesn’t detract from the perception of his art as something which emanates directly from his own personal vision.