Jeff Cowen:
Photography, Collage, Gesture and Form

Jeff Cowen is restless, energetic, and constantly creative. He really has no choice; this is the way he is wired for life and he makes the most of it.

During the past 25 years, black-and-white film photography has been at the center of his art practice. He seems to bounce effortlessly between 8 x 10, 4 x 5, and 35 mm formats.

Cowen works across a wide range of subject matter — with the human figure, landscapes, still life, and abstraction. He’s known for ripping beautiful prints to pieces and then re-assembling them to make something even more beautiful. And he has a gift for collage that makes a viewer’s head spin with delight.

He prints large and small, whisper soft or tack sharp, and he often wrestles with variations of one image for more than a year before he’s ready to share it with the world. Yet despite his perfectionism, he creates a lot of work, remarkable work.

He seems to be forever reinventing himself and pushing his medium to places it’s never quite been before. In his most recent body of work (2012-2013), now on show at the Michael Werner Gallery in Cologne, Cowen has even abandoned his cameras and lenses at times, opting to work directly on 8 x 10 negatives with markers, blades and chemicals. Likewise, in the darkroom, he brushes, pours and splatters chemicals with finesse onto photographic paper, much like an action painter, with equally fascinating results.

When I asked him about this dramatic shift in his work, he said this:

“Especially in winter, there’s not a lot of external inspiration in Berlin. It’s cold and dark in Berlin, and my work was really reflecting that. Photography relies on external reality that is captured somehow in a camera and transformed. So, I found myself looking for inspiration from within and not from without. I don’t know, it’s got something to do with energy and life force … It’s hard for me to express this in words, that’s why I work with pictures.

“There is still a formal aspect to what I’m doing that is related to all my previous work, but I started relying more on abstract shapes and forms to bring energy into it.

“The color happened last year. I went on a trip to Portugal, and it was a great trip. The light was wonderful, and there was color everywhere and it really excited me. There is a spiritual aspect to color. And when I returned home, there were about 100 work prints hanging on my wall and they all looked grey to me…

“I needed to introduce color somehow. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing at first, I was experimenting and feeling free. I started working directly with the negative instead of a camera. I used chemistry, pens, markers, scratches to make marks on 8 x 10 negatives. There’s a diptych in the new show that has pink in it — that’s from chemicals on black-and-white photo paper; I didn’t add color to make that pink. On others I’ve used some paint for color, oils and acrylic, and chemistry, and put it all in the sink under water, added some matte medium, see what happens.

“I get bored very easily. I like traveling just to see where I can go. It’s simple human nature. Human nature wants us to grow and evolve and avoid entropy. At least that’s the way my DNA is wired.

“I’m still working with external imagery, but I’m a wild character, and I wanted to get my full body engaged in the process more. I mean, I felt frustrated just working with my cameras. You know, okay, let’s try f32 at seven seconds. It’s a head game sometimes… As I grow older, I’m coming to terms with powerful forces in me. Destruction is a creative act. I’m plunging into it without knowing where it’s going to take me.

“With the new work and collage it’s essential to use my body. It fills a need for me, using my body, gesture, chemistry, color, destruction, creation, chance. It’s a little like fishing in the dark; it’s fun, and sometimes you catch one.”

Jeff Cowen's artwork is featured in a rare solo exhibition by the Michael Werner Gallery during Paris Photo, 13-17 November 2013 at at the Grand Palais. Don't miss it.

— Jim Casper