Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road: John Cohen and Photography

I often speak about how I was introduced to photography through the vinyl record sleeve and in particular the cover of Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain featuring an image created by Ken Regan. However, I rarely speak of the images created by John Cohen also of Bob Dylan that introduced me to the concept of documenting the life that was unfolding around me.  Cohen’s images of a teenage Bob Dylan and of New York’s, Greenwich Village scene in the late fifties and early sixties were evocative documents without artifice; honest images that gave insight and testament to a time of a creative energy and social awakening. Images that must have informed the sense of authenticity in the Coen Brothers lightly fictionalised film of the time Inside Llewyn Davis that also included Cohen singing and playing the traditional song Roving Gambler with the Down Hill Strugglers.

John Cohen was the real deal. He hung out and documented the Abstract Expressionists in New York’s Cedar Bar, photographed The Beats during the filming of Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy, and was a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers. He told stories and documented characters from the inside as a photographer and musician steeped in the history of American folk music. As the director and producer Ken Burns comments on the reverse of what has become Cohen’s last photographic testament Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road: When Old Time Music Met Bluegrass “Like a good country song, John Cohen’s photos tell a powerful story”.


John Cohen had been making photographs since 1954, and his photographic inquiries lead him to the Andes and to Appalachia, where he photographed traditional musicians in their own home settings. His ‘old-time’ musicians of Appalachia images led to his 1962 film, High Lonesome Sound, that has become synonymous with that music.  This work alongside his New York documentation had a natural synergy through both content and approach. Informal images of musicians being musicians, playing, singing, hanging out. Just like the music he played, sung and adored, his photography has an informal, loose attitude. Moments are captured in recording studios, country hoe-downs, in homes, country music parks and meet-ups, in fact, wherever music is made and shared.  It is informal in nature but meticulous in attention to detail. Instruments, clothes and environments all add to the stories being told. Shadowy jukeboxes, bare walls, single light bulbs, shared microphones, hats, work shirts, cowboy suits and Brylcream. Robert Frank without the darkness.

Unless you are deeply embedded in this music the names of those featured in Cohen’s latest and last book will mean little. But that is of no relevance. Cohen was a musicologist but you don’t need to be to appreciate his work and this book. Cohen was a polymath, musician, photographer, archivist and lecturer – From 1972 to 1997, he was a Professor of Visual Arts at State University, New York, Purchase College where he started the photography course and taught photography and drawing – activities defined by a passion to share his love of an America that he felt needed to be seen and heard. This book is a fitting testament to that passion.

“We plunged ahead in awe of what we witnessed. Many layers of meaning were preserved on negatives which otherwise might never have seen the light of day. It makes the present seem so much sweeter.” John Cohen.

John Cohen died on September 16th 2019 aged 87. I was hoping to speak with him later that week.

You can read the last interview with John and Bill Shapiro in which they discuss Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road here https://gardenandgun.com/articles/photographers-ode-roots-country-music/

Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road by John Cohen, published by powerHouse Books.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.

His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay can now be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wd47549knOU&t=3915s.

© Grant Scott 2019


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