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Tangled up in Bob

Iconic beat and folk photographs at Phototroph


Untitled photo of the young Bob Dylan by John Cohen.
  • Untitled photo of the young Bob Dylan by John Cohen.

Photography fiends, music mavens and literature lovers alike should be thrilled about the latest exhibit at Phototroph Gallery: John Cohen: Young Bob Dylan and Other Photographs.

Even if you don't recognize the name John Cohen, you'll undoubtedly recognize his images. He captured the Woody Guthrie-wanna-be Dylan before he released his first self-titled album in 1962. He created some of the most enduring images of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and their many beat-generation cohorts. And he tirelessly documented folk culture (with photographs and field recordings) throughout New York City, the southeastern United States and South America.

To music fans, Cohen is also known as one of the original members of the New Lost City Ramblers -- the seminal urban folk group who, along with Harry Smith and his Anthology of American Folk Music -- greatly contributed to the explosion of the folk revival movement that spawned the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez, Donovan and the hundreds of folkies who followed.

It's hard, looking back, to comprehend how one photographer could have captured so many mythic figures and moments before they became part of the popular imagination. But perhaps it was his feverish love for all folk culture, and the tendency of any lover to romanticize and mythologize the object of his desire, that graced Cohen with that serendipitous genius.

Included in the show are some of the finest examples of Cohen's photographs from a variety of periods in his career. Most prominent are the photos of young Dylan on Cohen's roof playing the chimney sweep huckster he wanted people to believe he was at that time. So unquestioning are the photos that you can't help but believe Dylan's innocuous invention of himself. As with all great artists, the mask trumps the myth when the talent is true, and Dylan has been one of those rare chameleons who almost always became what the times needed him to be.

Also included is a rare look at the withering Woody Guthrie, soul intact and stunningly handsome. A kinetic shot of three young black gospel singers is so completely infused with intensity of the moment you can hear the music coming from their mouths by the quaking shapes of their faces. A horse lying in a misty field of grass near thatch-roofed barns in Peru while two wispy trees bend with the wind has a Japanese timelessness and, again, carries the force of the moment enough to transmit the chill.

Perhaps the most exquisite of the pieces in this small grouping is the uninflected look at Roscoe Holcomb, a banjo player from the hills of eastern Kentucky who Cohen recorded on tape and in film. While the dignity of his poverty seems almost clich, it's the secrecy of his stoicism that makes the Holcomb portrait enduringly mysterious.

Elaine Bean has really gone the extra mile for the local arts community since opening her tiny Phototroph Gallery. A serendipitous genius seems to be at work for her as well with the acquisition of this new show (Cohen, it turns out, was local photographer Andrea Modica's teacher). The prints are reasonably priced and books of Cohen's work including the newly published Young Bob will be available.

-- Noel Black

capsule John Cohen: Young Bob Dylan and Other Photos

Phototroph Gallery , 218 W. Colorado Ave., Suite 111 (under the bridge)

Opening reception and books sale: Fri., Oct. 3 from 5 to 8 p.m.

Show runs through Oct. 25


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