Camouflage: An Interview with Lynne Cohen

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During the last thirty years or so you have produced a remarkably consistent body of work, but there have been a number of subtle changes in your photography during this time. Can we begin by talking about these?

The shifts in my work are partly due to my exploring different subjects. The men‘s clubs, halls, beauty salons, living rooms and lobbies I photographed early on are much more commonplace and accessible than the target ranges, classrooms, spas, military installations and training environments I now photograph. In the new pictures, there is a more critical edge because I have become more concerned with manipulation and control. Still, my photographs from the beginning have been about various sorts of artifice and deception. I started out probing the boundaries between the found and the constructed, the absurd and the deadly serious, the animate and the inert, and I've been probing them ever since.

There are certain recurrent themes in your work. Which, in your own view, are the key themes, and do you see any particular images as pivotal?

The men‘s clubs, especially the picture of a room with the words ‘ Liberty , Brotherly Love, Fidelity ’ on the wall and the picture with photographs of men in hats like lampshades. Party Room. 1976 , was also pivotal; the floor is like an action painting, a record of all the scuff marks, scratches, scrapes. Then there is the classroom with the aeroplane simulator that looks like a gigantic toy. And some recent laboratories and spas. And some observation rooms.

The creepiest of all your themes, perhaps... Almost all your pictures are made indoors. Why is this so?

Almost everything I‘ve done has been indoors, and the few outdoor pictures I‘ve made look like indoor ones. The sky functions as a wall and it still feels as though there are no exits. But mostly I photograph inside. It demands much less editorializing. Composing outside is almost impossible without interfering with the found-object quality of things, and I prefer not to intrude in that way. Still, if you think of my work, as I often do, as a kind of installation art, the separation between inside and outside is not so sharp.

At one time you seem to have been obsessed with laboratories. Are you less so today?

The problem with research laboratories is that virtual spaces are taking over from real spaces with real objects, and I‘m not interested in photographing computer screens. Usually, however, I stop photographing subjects when I don‘t have anything more to say about them. This happened with living rooms and later with the men‘s clubs and observation rooms. I become immune to them and would revisit them only if I came to think there was something new for me to deal with. Perhaps one day I‘ll go back to some of the big party rooms I used to photograph. This time around, though, I‘d focus on the linoleum floors and wall panels rather than on the Pop Art iconography. Something like this happened with the swimming pools in spas. In 1975 I photographed a swimming pool at a resort in the Poconos, the honeymoon capital of the USA. The pool had mould oozing down the wall, even though it was supposed to be a luxury hotel, and similar stains appear in some of my later pictures of pools. I hadn‘t thought of the mould as the primary theme until I saw it again in a different context with something else in mind.

Do you think you are doing something different from documentary photographers who record subjects almost encyclopaedically?

My goals are not as noble as theirs. I have little interest in collecting examples of places for historical, sociological or anthropological purposes. And I don‘t see myself as a documentary photographer. Of course my photographs document places I go to. But they are also documents of what I am thinking about, resonances between what is in the world and what is in my head. I don‘t photograph streets, industrial sites, people in their homes for their own sake and rarely feel compelled to capture the essence of the places I visit. Often there is only one thing that interests me. Sometimes nothing at all. The documentary photographer‘s job is to record something. It isn‘t mine.

That‘s evident in the very fact that you don‘t even know what you are going to find when you go into a new site. That must be terribly exciting, that anticipation, that hope that you are going to find something truly extraordinary. It really is an adventure for you, isn‘t it?

It would be stretching it to say it is an adventure but I often find it exhilarating. For me the process of making a picture involves dealing with strangers and going to places I‘ve never been to, and the anticipation and intimidation are part of it. I sometimes describe myself as a performance artist because of what I have to do to get access to places I want to photograph. It was much easier to find and get into people‘s living rooms. I could sometimes see them from the road. That‘s not possible with institutional spaces. They are nearly always behind several sets of doors, often without windows. There‘s no more window peeping.

So the process of making pictures somehow determines how they look, at least in part?

There is a subplot connected with getting into places. It‘s not obvious in the pictures but it‘s there all the same. At some point the viewer asks: ‘How did she get into or out of this place?’ I prefer to allude to things and leave it to the viewer to fill in the details. Like Brecht and Godard, I want the audience to do some of the work. For me it is best when the viewer goes back and forth and regards the photographs as documents, as constructions, as pictures with social and political messages. They don‘t have to be only one thing, and I‘d rather not tell people how to read them.

Would you be disappointed if people missed the humour and surreal aspect of your work? Imagine somebody looking at the Phillips‘s Living Room and saying ‘I‘d like to have a living room like that’?

If people didn‘t find the places I photograph a bit, shall we say, bizarre, I‘d wonder about them! People think the Phillips‘s Living Room, which I did very early on, is a celebration or a critique of bad taste, but I‘ve never been much interested in kitsch. Like many of my other pictures, this one is about symmetry and boundaries, about the absurd, about the uncanny way rooms look like installations. Of course the photograph has a critical edge. There is an awful lot of shag carpet in the pictures of living rooms I made in the early 1970s, something I have a visceral reaction to. In my more recent work, the materials are different and I don‘t respond to them the same way. The stainless steel in the picture of the experimental chamber is so cold you can feel the metal in your fillings.

True, it must be twenty below zero in there. That‘s another picture one can easily imagine as an artist‘s installation. But in fact, you seem more interested in naively created spaces than, say, in the spaces you find in museums and art galleries.

I used to be interested in ordinary, even banal, places but I‘m not any longer. Laboratories, spas, military installations and classrooms are not naively constructed. What bothers me about spaces in museums and art galleries is not that they are created by sophisticates but that they have already been framed. They are not raw, and I feel I should stay clear.

Often someone has put a desk in a central position of authority, or added some decoration on the wall. Is that where people come into your pictures, through the invisible hierarchy of who sits where?

The positioning of the furniture makes it crystal clear who is in charge. It draws a line between them and us. But it isn‘t only how the furniture is arranged. Couches and chairs look like people, and there are many other suggestions of the human body: dummies, diagrams and silhouettes. Also there is often an eerie human presence or a hint of an activity just finished or about to begin.

Eerie, and yet you are drawn to just such places. How do you explain this attraction?

I have an approach/avoidance reaction to them. Sometimes I find them seductive, sometimes repulsive, but mostly I have mixed feelings. Perhaps it would be best to say I‘m drawn to visual and ideological contradictions and deceptions. I‘m fascinated by boundaries that are more conceptual than real, by ambiguous messages, by things that don‘t make sense, by bad logic. It is strange how frequently things aren‘t quite what they‘re cracked up to be how often pictures of exotic places are unconvincing, how often luxury resorts resemble psychiatric hospitals and how often psychiatric hospitals look like health spas. The picture of a blackboard with a diagram of arrows going in two directions (opposite) sums it up for me. Is it a sketch for a bizarre philosophy of life?

Or perhaps a mirror of moral or cultural confusion? What seems most sinister about your work is not the laboratory specimens half hidden behind a cupboard or the dead monkey draped over an operating table, but the sort of places you photograph.

There is less air in the classrooms, laboratories and military installations than in the beauty salons and halls. The places are still amusing but there‘s a more sinister aspect. It is much less clear how you get into or out of them. Perhaps laboratories that smell of formaldehyde are more threatening than living rooms that smell of baby powder and air freshener. But both can be asphyxiating.

Sometimes it seems as though you are more interested in small details than in the big picture.

I‘m intrigued by architectural details and hardware. It‘s strange, but I‘ve never seen an electrical outlet that is level. There are people travelling around in spaceships but no one can properly install an outlet. Some people might find this consoling but I find it disturbing. Also I‘m acutely aware of things like surveillance cameras, ‘No Exit’ signs, fire alarms and grimy stains around light switches. Sometimes objects look pathological, sometimes not. It often seems as if someone could be shouting at me from the other side of the air vent. And why do heating units so often seem to be keeping an eye on things? They have peculiar human attributes they seem to want to join in rather than just sit there. Things like that amuse me: outlets, exhaust grates and office paraphernalia that look like minimalist sculpture. Sometimes the hardware speaks for itself; but sometimes it functions as a metaphor for something else. Every room is a conceptual piece, an installation in real time.

You often mention the word ‘installation’.

It pleases me that my pictures have been taken to be installations I‘ve set up. People often say, ‘You must have constructed them. They can‘t be true.’ But obviously I couldn‘t have fabricated the spaces I photograph so seamlessly, to say nothing of the fact that the force of the work would be diluted if it weren‘t mostly true. I sometimes clean things up a bit. I occasionally move something into the frame or remove objects that are distracting or clumsy. But these ‘assists’ don't change the meaning of the pictures. What I photograph is in the world more or less as I find it. But I admit that if you photograph fragments of reality the way I do, the results are pretty much bound to look constructed.

Do you think you could say what you want to say in any other medium?

The ideas I have seem to me best realized photographically but some could also have been worked out as actual installations. In the early 1970s, I thought about cordoning off living rooms, halls and party rooms the way they do in natural history museums and at crime scenes. My idea was to choose a site and tell people where to stand and what to look at. Also I imagined appropriating goose-neck lamps, chairs with chrome legs and scuffed linoleum, and transporting them to an art gallery. They would have been photographs in real space. In the end I decided it was better as an idea and opted for the found environments.

There are a lot of references in your work to contemporary art and art history. Just how conscious are they?

There are uncanny affinities between what I photograph and what artists paint and construct. In my work you find Kosuth clocks, van Eyck mirrors, Beuys blackboards, Artschwager desks, Richter‘s famous men, Hatoum wire cages and many other reminders of early and contemporary art. A fixture in one picture looks like a Flavin, a fixture in another looks like a Judd. Someone once referred to my photographs as ‘facsimiles from a virtual museum’. But they are no more facsimiles than they are documents. They are both and neither.

Discussions of your work usually focus on the kinds of interiors you photograph and on the strangeness of the places we create for ourselves. But the look of your work is also very striking.

When people discuss my work they tend to focus on the content and ignore the formal qualities, which for me are equally fundamental. Coming to photography from conceptual art and art and language, I felt the more deadpan the picture, the more likely it would appear to be about ideas. From the start I realized I could heighten the illusion of neutrality by flat lighting, symmetry and deep focus, the sort of devices used in the production of postcards and annual reports. This gives my pictures a cool, dispassionate edge. It makes them seem immaculately conceived while camouflaging the all-but-incomprehensible stories they seem to convey. My strategy is to deal with complicated themes in a way that creeps up on the viewer.

In some recent photographs it‘s hard to quite figure out where the light is coming from or how a shadow is attached to an object.

There is more light in the laboratory pictures than in the early interiors. It is curious how light can be palpable in a room that has no windows. In a recent picture of a military installation it feels as if the light is coming from behind you. Not knowing exactly the source of the light contributes to the ambiguity of a space. You vacillate between feeling the space goes on forever and feeling hemmed in.

In the picture of the section of the aeroplane, the picture with the Tyrolean hat and many other pictures, everything looks somehow distorted.

ln one way the distortions are linked to Pop Art. Early on I was drawn to the sort of exaggerations you find in the work of artists like Claes Oldenburg. The hat in Party Room is far too big for the room, and the room it is in is just bizarre. Everything is warped and not just because the picture was taken with a wide-angle lens. Even the minimalist white-papered box the Tyrolean hat is perched on is wrong. All too often, the world seems to me to have been fabricated by an architect out of foam-core. The scale of things is nearly always off, and incidental things look monumental.

This sculptural aspect of your work is very intriguing. You began, in fact, as a sculptor and printmaker and then shifted to photography. How did this come about?

It was in the early 1970s, at the time of Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art. I was using material culled from how-to-do-it books and consumer catalogues and wondered why I shouldn‘t just knock on someone‘s door and ask if I could take a photograph. It seemed to me that the statement would not only be bolder but more engaged. Also, by moving to photography I thought I could make art in which the hand of the artist was absent, art that looked as though it had mysteriously appeared. Photography struck me, as it did a lot of artists then, as a medium without pretence. It didn‘t come with the art historical baggage of painting and sculpture. And its ideology was closer to Arte Povera, which I liked.

So you didn‘t have much training in photography?

I came to photography with pretty definite opinions about art, and the rudiments of the craft didn‘t take long to learn. Certain things would have been easier had I had more training but my time studying anthropology, philosophy, literature and such like wasn‘t wasted. It helped me get clear what I wanted to say. My real point of departure, however, was sculpture and art history. I was intrigued by Richard Artschwager‘s early work and his attention to Naugahyde, wood panelling and linoleum. I knew I wanted the viewer to be able to see the difference between plywood and polyethylene, and I started working with a view camera right away for that reason. I also knew I didn‘t want to photograph anything moving, which ruled out people. That‘s about all I knew to begin with. The history of photography was just part of my general knowledge of art history.

You often speak of Duchamp and the readymade.

When I was a printmaker, I regarded catalogue interiors as readymades. The more mundane they were, the more unbelievable they seemed to me. It was the same when I started to photograph. I found the banality of everyday life so loaded with meaning it was incomprehensible. The ephemera of people‘s living and work spaces had an obsessive order or disorder. From the first photographs I made, I felt the world couldn‘t be like this. It seemed as if it was full of finished works of art. You could say I saw myself photographing readymades. But while I appropriated a Duchampian attitude of neutrality to the formal strategies I employed, I have never been indifferent to the subjects I photograph, only ambivalent.

At a certain moment you moved from strict adherence to contact prints to enlargements. When were these earlier works begun, and when did you make the move to the larger prints?

I made the first picture I stand by in 1971. It is very different from my present work. For one thing it is more symmetrical. In those days I thought there was only one place to make a picture. It was as if paper footprints were stuck to the floor telling you where to stand. I don‘t think this now. The move to larger prints came in 1980. Once I saw the pictures larger, I realized there was no good reason to continue contact printing. The larger prints were less benign, and the subjects looked even more like constructions. Also, while the subjects in my work tend to push you away, the big pictures have a seductive quality that draws you in. It is harder to keep the larger photographs at a distance emotionally they are like picture windows you can fall into. The bigness heightens the three-dimensional qualities and makes the viewer feel more a part of the space of the picture. This is something I appropriated from art history. I use the sort of devices you find in Baroque painting to implicate the viewer physically and psychologically.

Nonetheless, there‘s a limit to the size you can move up to, isnlsquo;t there?

The important thing for me is not so much the difficulty of making the pictures bigger as the fact that at a certain point the grain takes over and the picture falls apart. The photograph gets mushy and the edges flatten out. The oversize photograph of the spa with moving water and columns, the one that resembles a Fra Angelico painting, is bigger than some of the others, and I don't think it would be so unsettling if it had been printed smaller. But there is a limit. I want the pictures to open up when you look at them close to. There should be more rather than less to see.

Could you say more about the feeling of disorientation you find so important?

My work has always been about psychological, sociological, intellectual and political artifice. This is apparent in the early pictures, but in recent years it is clearer still. I am now more preoccupied by deception, claustrophobia, manipulation and control. This is most noticeable in the pictures of police schools with human targets, spas that look like forensic laboratories and training environments with no exits. I take my work to be social and political but there is no concrete message. Perhaps this is why I feel much closer in spirit to Jacques Tati than to Michel Foucault.

You clearly do delight in the absurd. Doesn‘t the framing you select in the camera heighten the sense that things are not quite stable?

I‘d like to think how I frame a space doesn‘t disrupt what‘s there too much. Ideally, the viewer should feel the edges of the picture could be here or there or somewhere else. What the picture is about comes from the choice of subject matter and how it is turned into a photographic object. When the framing is seamless, the barrier between the space depicted and the room in which the viewer is standing dissolves.

Why did you resist dating your work for so many years?

This has been a bone of contention even with some of my strongest supporters. Mainly I didn‘t want the pictures to be about a particular place and time. I didn‘t want people to say: this is the 1970s, this is the 1980s, this is the 1990s. And I‘ve always had a strong sense of life as a blip and of thirty years not counting for much in the big scheme of things. Probably what prompted me to start dating them was that I became more territorial. I wanted it to be known that I did something before someone else. In any event, it is not so hard to figure out what is early work (work between 1971 and 1980), later work (work from about 1980 to about 1990) and most recent work (work from the last ten years or so). You can tell from the objects. The pictures are a kind of archaeology of fixtures and furniture. There is no question as to when Professor‘s Living Room (opposite) was made. You can almost tell from the smells associated with the places. The early work conjures up smells of ashtrays filled with cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, Freon, wet dog hair and air freshener. The later work conjures up smells of chlorine, metal, electric wires, gasoline, plywood and formaldehyde. The smell of linoleum is a constant so this method is not entirely reliable. Also the early work is funnier, messier, more symmetrical, warmer and less threatening; the later work colder, tidier and more disquieting.

What prompted you to start working in colour?

When people would ask why I didn‘t work in colour, I responded that I did. In much of my black and white work there are clues as to what the dominant colour is. For example there‘s a picture called Loan Office, with a photograph of a racehorse and two pig-like chairs made of Naugahyde that simply has to be yellow-orange. Nobody needs to be told the colour of wood panelling, plywood and stainless steel. You can fill it in yourself. What prompted me to start working in colour as well as in black and white is that I became interested in the way colour film records colours wrongly. Once I let go of the idea of getting the colour right, I could set about capitalizing on the way colour film subverts the psychological weight we accord things in the world. Now what strikes me as peculiar is that the colour pictures seem to be made from much greater distance even when the same lenses and equipment are used. The colour acts like a distancing device, and the pictures appear to have been taken from miles away. I can‘t explain that.

Colour is a dimension fraught with implications for your work. In some cases it is so subtly deployed that it takes a moment to register that the image actually is in colour. There is even a danger that the colour can work against the function of the sites, is there not?

Yes and no. The laboratory pictures are filled with colour-coded paraphernalia the coloured pipes tell you what they are used for and the coloured wires say something about electrical power. But this explains nothing. In fact it makes the spaces look crazier still. The laboratories look even more like obsessive installations or children‘s game boards. While the colour work is less ominous in one way than the black and white work, in another way it is more ominous. It's a bit like cotton candy. The smell is appealing but the stuff sticks to your face. The colour of the water in the therapeutic pools is the same. It is very seductive but it feels heavy, metallic, sickly.

You seem attracted to colours that have a sickly quality the blue of pools for instance.

It‘s strange but I don‘t think about the colour before making a picture. It‘s just a fact. It is almost subliminal. Perhaps that‘s why some people who saw my first exhibition of colour photographs didn‘t realize that they were in colour. A few months earlier I exhibited black and white work alongside colour work and felt one led seamlessly to the other. You didn‘t know where the black and white work ended and the colour work began. The colour is not something I want to draw attention to. I want it to be as neutral as the other formal devices I exploit.

When you frame prints for exhibition, you see the frames as contributing to the pieces. That‘s unusual in a photographer. How did it come about?

In the mid-eighties it struck me that I‘d like my photographs to function as three-dimensional objects as well as windows on the world. I thought I should make the frames resonate with the subject matter of the photographs and bring out the link to my early work in sculpture. I decided on Formica because it is fabricated photographically, it echoes what is happening in the photographs and it adds another layer of illusion and artificiality. One Spa is framed in marble that simulates the marble at the spa itself, a photograph of a Hercules ‘bomber’ mock-up was given a yellow frame because of its association with mustard gas, while a Military Installation is framed in green to suggest canvas or camouflage. I think the resulting pieces are more complete as objects and the border between the picture and the world no longer so abrupt.

Your first book was called Occupied Territory and this one is called No Man‘s Land. It sounds like war. Are things really that bad?

Not really. Perhaps it‘s just that there‘s too much camouflage.

Interview conducted by William A. Ewing, Vincent Lavoie, Lori Pauli and Ann Thomas, February 2001

This interview was published in ‘No Man‘s Land’, Ann Thomas, Thames & Hudson, 2001, ISBN 0500 542406
French version: No Man‘s Land - Ann Thomas- Les photographies de Lynne Cohen - Thames & Hudson 2001 - 160 pages - ISBN : 2-87811-204-0