“What makes you unique as in individual?” was the question posed by Stewart Cohen to each of his subjects. Each subject was asked to write out their answer to that question with a one page limit. Cohen: “I hope these pictures and the subjects’ own commentaries provoke thought and sharpen the eye for the stories in their faces.”
A very shallow depth of field draws the viewers’ attention to features of each subject that provoke questions and smiles. Cohen helps us see the stories written in the lines of experience, expressions of joy, and pride of achievement of each of his subjects, chosen over the ten years of this project. Clever yet thoughtful cropping by the artist draws our attention to the features of the subjects that demand our attention, our empathy and our understanding. We connect with this diverse sampling of humanity in a way not possible in person.
Some of the written responses by the chosen 50 fill their allotted space of one page and others need only a word or two. Often we learn more by what is not written just as we see more of the character of the people by imagining what was cropped out of the image. At least five of the portraits were cropped so that a significant portion of the face was not visible. The first two images presented contrast a Texas entrepreneur with an Oklahoma banker. An extreme closeup of an 80 year old man vs. a much younger art collector provides a memorable character study comparing experience and vanity.
Which is more feminine — the female impersonator or the Russian ballerina? Who is more dangerous — the gentle man who is obsessed with the darkest corners of human nature (Dominick Dunne) or “Sonny” Barger of the notorious Oakland chapter of Hell’s Angels? Would you rather have your portrait painted with the words of Amy Tan or the music of Bobby McFerrin? If Mr. Cohen took your photo, what would he crop out — and what would you write on your one page? Stewart Cohen’s Identity, A Photographic Meditation From The Inside Out, forces the reader to study the person they see in the mirror as much as the ones on his pages. If he can help us identify ourselves, what more could we ask from a photographer?