Jeff Cowen is an extremely interesting artist who works with various formats and works extensively in the darkroom on his mural-sized prints. His work is constantly evolving and has a visual complexity that is a result of the all-analogue process he has developed. Jeff's style of writing is an automatic / stream-of-consciousness style.
Your work has a varied subject matter, what is it about your subjects you find interesting?
I work first always from an emotional standpoint. I have to feel strongly about my subject or I will never be able to make a photograph. In facts its a very strange thing photography. I remember as a young child I would get these incredibly overpowering feelings about people and things and say "oh my god that’s incredible" and most often I felt people did not get me. It was quite a lonely feeling actually. So Photography gave me a vent and a path to express my own humanity and take on this crazy beautiful existence called life...
In my opinion, being a photographer is largely the ability to look at something emotionally in the 3 dimensional world, and have that subject translate its emotion and of course "work" from a pictorial standpoint in a photograph which is in the 2 dimensional world. This is the same in painting of course. Why is it if you give say 25 photography students the same pair of shoes to photograph maybe one can come back with a decent and emotional image. That’s because that student must love shoes or have some very real emotional feelings about those shoes and have the ability to show that in his or her image. The camera is a paradox. Every photo is a lie to some extent and at the same time the camera cannot lie.
I was just looking at some early street work of Bill Brandt again and he really was one of the best on the street. Why? Well, he had a real point of view and very strong feelings about his subjects. His images are eerily beautiful and well we can imagine how Brandt felt. YOU CAN’T FAKE THIS. I think it was Louis Armstrong who said ‘if you cant feel it you can’t blow it out your horn’ Photography is a form of poetry when its working as it should. So about your question, well I am a very curios person by nature and photography the "generous" medium that it is to ( borrow from Lee Friedlander) allows me to voyage externally or internally to the destination of my hearts yearning. Last year I got obsessed about light and water so I traveled down to Venice and in the freezing winter I sat for hours at night exploring and studying how light worked on water. Recently I felt drawn in by early Egyptian mythology and symbolism so I studied that a bit and traveled with my girlfriend down to Egypt for my new project Scarab. The point is that photography is just a means to an end. It’s a guide of sorts to me. In one way I dislike photography a lot. Its a huge amount of work and I am a lazy person by nature. It forces me to work very hard. I spend a lot of my year in the darkroom. I am really a manual laborer at the end of the day. I guess It gives me something to do all day so I don’t go insane.
Art and photography are really the only thing that has ever interested me, and for over 25 years now. So the subject of my images is what I am feeling and seeing in the subject. It could be a still life or a landscape etc. In a way I think photography saved my life, I was pretty much of a mess growing up. I always had too much inside me and was overly sensitive, at the same time I was a bit of a savage those two are a difficult combination. I should really be a singer but I can’t hold a note to save my life. So Photography gave me the vehicle to relate to the world. I have a great reverence for photography. At first it was a neurotic passion. I had my camera around my neck wherever I went all the time. I needed it to put between me and the world. It protected me. And I felt death was always looming (and I was right) so I had this need to collect my feelings about all the images of people and places that meant something to me and save them from there death. By doing so it let me become a deity of sorts saving me from my own demise. So you see Photography is an incredibly powerful art. I think photographers need to be incredibly human and totally nuts at the same time. After all a photograph is a piece of paper with silver on it. You could burn that in 2 seconds... Anyway we are all going to die. And most people want to live eternally? You know when you photograph something you kill that thing and preserve it at the same time. Its a very violent and loving act, both at the same time. Its nuts really when you think about it.
Your work seems to celebrate analogue image making and the chemical process of print creation, what drives you to work in this manner.
Well for one thing, that’s how photography was taught to me by Elaine Mayes, Ralph Gibson and Larry Clark. There was no digital action in those days. So its what I know. But, and its a huge but... If I were born today I would not use a digital camera. This is something entirely different. In general digital images never quite sit as well with me as images made on film. Its like looking at someone who has vanity driven plastic surgery... everything is a little bit too perfect and therefore uninteresting. I am much more interested in the imperfections that make people perfect and human. God made a lot of mistakes after all... or were they? Think of the very action of exposing film. It’s a chemical and therefore natural reaction. It’s Organic not robotic. Nothing wrong with robots but not for my art. I can't think of one digital image that I would like to own... Anyway, to each there own, I like making a negative a positive... It’s my nature.
Your work often seems to capture the fleeting moments of a shoot – the shots between shots, how do you work towards this?
I work with my heart and emotions always first and then later I bring in the analytical mind. First and foremost I am not interested in using my camera to copy nature... its impossible anyway, as the very act of photographing something changes it, but this is a philosophical premise that would take too long to get into now. So I am really at the same time creating the moment I want, and allowing it to happen, both at the same time. I don't take pictures I make them...
Do you feel you know when you have the shot at the negative stage, or is it at the subsequent printing stage that you begin to see what you wanted?
I generally get a sense when a shoot is done. I don't concentrate well for long periods at a time anyway so I work lightening fast like a very intense laser when I am working with a someone. This also allows the emotional intensity to live.
Why is scale so important in your work?
Scale is always an issue for photographers, painters, sculptors etc... I often work quite big because my images seem to demand this of me. When I was drawing and painting I was not particularly good with smaller scales but when I started to work life size for whatever reason my drawings and paintings came to life. I will often times make work prints in different sizes to determine the correct scale. Scale is largely decided by the content of the image, picture grain, focus and movement...
Do you keep a journal or sketchbook?
I do a lot of automatic writing which I learned from Breton and Yeats. (In fact this is automatic writing, my answers, so forgive all the misspellings and bad punctuations and poor grammar etc...) It keeps me free and open and trains my ego to give up control... this puts me in the moment and opens me up to the dream world and what’s really going on deep inside me and takes me out of the logical mind with all its traps. I throw my automatic writing in the garbage in the mornings when I am done with it. It’s kind of like the Tibetan Butter Sculptures they are made for the sake of making them not for the product...
Do you prefer to work with particular formats / cameras / materials?
In general I like good old-fashioned German cameras and enlargers. Leica's , Linhofs and Durst. I have put relatively little money in my equipment in 25 years. A friend of mind recently bought a digital back for his camera and it cost almost more money than the total amount I have invested in cameras in 25 years. Why because the Germans know how to make a durable, quality machine with great optics and simplicity of usage. I want to totally forget about my camera when I am working... so I generally don’t often use light meters. I just set the aperture and the exposure and focus manually. This gives me all the control I need. I laugh at these digital cameras with there thousands of programs. I only need one steering wheel in a car not 50. I also shoot 8 x 10 and play around with a lot of old cameras. Each camera has its own sound and it’s a pleasure and a challenge to find the right pitch for each machine... I think if you gave Keith Richards a 3-dollar guitar missing a string he would still get a great sound out of it. That’s kind of what I am after...
When shooting do you previsualize images?
Well yes I do previsualize images however this is just a starting point. Life generally is more fabulous than my imagination, so I let events happen and try to stand out of the way and see what’s going to fall in my lap. I try to be receptive as much as directorial.
What does quality in a print mean to you?
That’s easy. I should want to lick it. I saw a Bill Brandt show in Paris at the foundation Henri Cartier Bresson a few years back and I really went nuts. I thought they were some of the most beautiful things I had have ever seen. The harmony and sensitivity of the prints and their tonality and light was really unrivaled in my mind. Brandt’s prints really brought out his work and made them sing. I spend relatively little time shooting, the majority of my work is in the darkroom. After all it might take 1/125 of a second to shoot an image but it could take me a year to make the print how I like it... its kind of mad really. The only thing I know is that spending a lot of time in the darkroom makes me a better photographer. Its like lifting weights for the eye. it becomes extremely sensitive to every little shift and nuance so when I go to shoot. I am really seeing.
The uniqueness of your individual prints and their bespoke nature seems to go against the pinned to the wall, unprotected way they are displayed, why do you choose this manner of presentation?
Well for me a photograph is a great paradox. On the one hand its completely sacred. After all there is never a photograph of the present moment. An image is always from the past. Meaning that that moment is dead. So when you shoot an image you preserve it for eternity and kill it at the same time. A good photograph to me has to be both very violent philosophically speaking and a beautiful entity both at the same time. Is not life? Creative and Destructive? Life without death, does not exist. They are married. So on the one hand a photograph is priceless and on the other hand its just a piece of paper, who cares...
Are you currently working on anything or have any future projects?
Yes, just trying as usual to keep my sanity. So I try to always have some projects going if not 5 at the same time. Now I am working on the Marquette of my next book which will be my work from the last five years... and I am exposing my work entitled Scarab at Bernd Kluser in Munich. It opened April fools day. I love that...