Come See Uncle John’s Photos

“When I started there was not much interest in this kind of music,” says John Cohen, an aficionado of rural American sounds. Back in the 50s, after Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music became the bible for a handful of true believers, Cohen traipsed through the south making field recordings; amid the farms and coal mines of Kentucky he discovered remarkable artists like banjoist and guitarist Roscoe Holcomb, a construction worker from Daisy, Kentucky, who mixed folk, blues, and white gospel singing. In 1958 Cohen started one of the first neo-old-time groups, the New Lost City Ramblers (immortalized in the Grateful Dead tune “Uncle John’s Band”). Three years later he helped organize the University of Chicago’s folk festival, and a year after that, he and his friend Ralph Rinzler started their own performance series in New York City under the banner “Friends of Old Time Music.” Such efforts nurtured the folk revival of the early 60s, which launched major new talents like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

A lot has changed in the past 50 years: the 1997 reissue of the Smith anthology and the phenomenal success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? sound track have spearheaded an American-music revival unlike anything in recent memory. Now more than 120 of Cohen’s stunning black-and-white photographs have been collected in the exhibition drawn from his book There Is No Eye, which opened earlier this year at Boston University, and Smithsonian/Folkways has released a companion CD featuring music by many of his subjects. Through August 25 the exhibition will be on display at the Chicago Cultural Center (if you’re reading this on Thursday, July 11, you might still be able to catch Cohen’s talk and book signing at 5:30 PM, and at 7:30 he’ll perform live with the Volo Bogtrotters at Gallery 37’s Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph).

The show includes portraits of Holcomb, Woody Guthrie, Doc Watson, Hazel Dickens, the Stanley Brothers, and a very young Dylan, but Cohen’s range of subjects is wider than one might expect. Born in 1932 to a left-leaning Jewish family in Queens, raised on Long Island, and educated at Yale, Cohen was a creature of the New York underground in the 50s, shooting pictures of various beat writers (Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky) and abstract expressionist painters (Philip Guston, Franz Kline). In 1956 he set out to study local weaving traditions in the Peruvian Andes and brought back loads of gorgeous photos. A 1959 expedition to Kentucky was financed by the production stills he shot for Robert Frank’s legendary experimental film Pull My Daisy.

“All these years my photographs were appreciated because they showed pictures of musicians, but they were rarely appreciated for being photographs, my visual work,” says Cohen, who lives in Putnam Valley, New York. “That’s what’s changed.” His portraits capture the musicians’ pride and a passion for sound that borders on possession. “The lens became like the balance point in an equation that had the visible world on one side and the interior world on the other,” he writes in There Is No Eye. One shot of old-time musicians Wade Ward and Charlie Higgins illustrates that extraordinary balance: one can see they’re natural musicians from the way they hold their instruments and themselves, yet their faces reveal a hint of suspicion.

Whether playing music, recording others, taking photographs, or making films, Cohen sees in all his work a desire to understand. “The mission wasn’t to try to find people,” he says. “The mission was to try to understand the music and to try to find a way to express the way I was feeling through the photography.” After all this time the recognition of his work delights him. “I was doing these things only for myself. It’s so very strange now, 40 years later, that these things that I did, that had no real purpose, no market or audience, are being called for now.”


Jazz trio Sticks and Stones–alto saxophonist Matana Roberts, bassist Josh Abrams, and drummer Chad Taylor–will celebrate the release of their self-titled debut album, on the local 482 Music label, with a performance Friday at the Velvet Lounge. Roberts, who recently moved to New York, will perform solo on Saturday at the Candlestick Maker in Albany Park….Readers of this column may know Diane Christiansen as a singer-songwriter in the country-rock band Dolly Varden, but like many musicians she’s also a visual artist. While assembling a new show of her own work at Carrie Secrist Gallery, she and Secrist decided to explore this creative duality: “Synesthesia: The Art of Musicians,” which opens this Friday at the gallery, 300 W. Superior, features work by ten visual artists also known for their music, including Sam Prekop (Sea and Cake), Damon Locks (Eternals), Rob Mazurek (Chicago Underground), Azita Youssefi (Bride of No No), and Archer Prewitt.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman, John Cohen.