Over the last couple of weeks I have been corresponding with Matthew Cohen to talk about his upcoming solo thesis exhibition, As it Truly is.
Below is our conversation.
Nechama Winston: As it Truly is – I looked up the full quotation from which the title of your show is taken: “To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold – brothers who know they are truly brothers.”
I was thinking I could start from here.
Immediately after I read your statement I did a little research about Apollo 8 and looked at the famous Earthrise image, taken by astronaut William Anders, showing the earth emerging from behind the lunar horizon, and recording this phenomenon as he and his crew witnessed it for the first time in human history.
Capturing the earthrise, generally visible from the lunar orbit and not from the moon’s surface, is only possible from the vicinity of the moon. This makes me think about the role of perspective and the change that must occur within and out of our frame – our relative frame of reference physically (geographically), as well as the frame we work within when we make a photograph. It is within this shift of “relative seeing” where I think distances and gaps emerge. Is this what you were also thinking about when you thought of this quote and historical event?
Matthew Cohen: Definitely. I think the reason the Earthrise photograph is so captivating to me is because its unique perspective can capture all of humanity and history. This principle persists from the smallest understanding of distance to the largest. Carl Sagan famously noted that the image, Pale Blue Dot, (an image of earth taken from just beyond Pluto’s orbit where Earth is a single blue pixel surrounded by void) that it contained, ‘…everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.’ It all depends on how you see it. Some can create distance between the things and people that are both physically and emotionally close. Some can feel close to things that are far away. The possibilities are endless and my photographs activate my personal perspectives on the different distances which I feel in my life.
NW: I found a sound recording between Anders and Frank Borman as Anders captured the earthrise (beginning at 3:36)
“Anders: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.
Borman: Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled. (joking)
Anders: (laughs) You got a color film, Jim?
Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…
Lovell: Oh man, that’s great!”
I read that there were several images of earthrise taken in this moment. The most famous – the one used by Life magazine – is the color one taken by Anders. I know you’ve worked with color, but you primarily work in black and white photography. Can you talk more about your decision to work in this mode and the importance it has for you within your practice? Do you think black and white perhaps works better at conveying the physical and emotional distance you’re talking about?
MC: Black and white imagery is how I learned to create photographs and how to create art that represented my ideas. I think every artist manipulates their medium in a certain way to best suit their form of creation and storytelling and a part of mine is black and white imagery. I personally think that black and white photography in our current art world can act to distance itself from the inundation of imagery we experience and be a better medium for a singular artistic point of view.
NW: I was wondering if in addition to distance, how the role of time, exploration, and travel factor into your work? I think about these ideas – looking outside as a way to explore or traverse the things closest to us or inside – navigating, marking, and generating trails along the way. Could you talk about these things in relation to the idea of outside-inside?
MC: This is a very large part of my practice that I arrived at in between the two years of the Master’s program. During my exploration of distance, near and far, I was hiking with my father and began to photograph the trail markers we passed. This was a very formative experience that changed my thinking from displaying distance to traversing it. This system became a part of a lot of the work I made in the second year, both in continuing to photograph different kinds of trail markers but to think more about the concept of markers.
NW: How did your interest in photography begin? How has your relationship to photography changed? What does a photo-practice mean to you now?
MC: I started photographing when I was in middle school after my father let me use his Nikon FM he received as a wedding present from his father-in-law. I took a few classes and have been making images ever since. In undergraduate when I came into my own as an image-maker, I was photographing to clearly and structurally say something through my images. I was very focused on having my images contain messages which I embedded into the work. Coming to the MFA program and working with the my professors and peers I opened my practice up to a much less didactic approach to making images that allows for audience participation and doesn’t try to force the viewer into anything. I think a photo-practice still means the same to me in a lot of ways. Most importantly, since it is specific to a photography practice and not an art practice, is to show and express ones own personal way of seeing the world. Seeing is operative because I think photography unlike painting or sculpture etc is unique in its ability to act as an eye. It is different because I no longer feel my practice is fueled with the need to force ideas into my viewer and have them act as language but utilize them as a different form of communication, one that is open to others opinions and histories and interpretations.
NW: Can you tell me how literature and poetry play a role within your practice – directly or indirectly? Have you come across anything recently that has changed you?
MC: Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost changed me in a very profound way. Throughout the book she speaks about ‘blue of distance’ a term she uses to describe the scientific principle where light gets bluer around the edges of the earth, in water, the further away it is from the eye etc, but also as an emotional phrase which describes the perception of blue, the blue of longing, as distance is only perceived by longing to be somewhere you are not. For a while, photographing distance was about photographing the far away. After finding this principle I began to work through my own perceived distances and made work about what was far away but felt very close.
NW: Which artists, writers, philosophers, and/or scientists inspire your modes of working and interests?
MC: I’ve always been inspired by science, a huge part of my practice, which led me to thinking about photographing distance, is astrophotography. My science crush is Einstein. I’ve read a lot of his writing and a lot about him and as the years go by astrophysicists keep figuring out that he had been right about all these things he had come up with simply by applying the principles to situations. General Relativity was written 100 years ago and Einstein thought, if this is true then the fabric of space-time must be just that, fabric. 4D. Movable. What moves it? Maybe really big events in space like when black holes smash into each other. If it were as malleable as my math makes it then we would be able to see waves in the fabric of space-time and gravity. Turns out he was spot on and only 100 years after he wrote General Relativity were we able to see it happen with the most advanced imaging sensors we have.
I also found Philosopher Slavoj Zizek last year and have been reading a lot of his work. A lot of his writing is specifically political in nature, but the book Event was more of a philosophical undertaking at redefining the word “event” from being a mundane happening to a world changing, perception bending, rule creating frame shift. Instead of natural disasters and politics he speaks of the fall of Christ, the upheaval of heliocentric models and of falling in love. In a time where I was restructuring my own art practice I began to think about what events shaped my life and used them to better understand my own art practice.
NW: Towards the end of last year I started following astrophysicist Natalie Batalha and came across something she said, which I think connects with your work and exhibition: “Reality is a poem on the tip of my tongue that I can’t quite remember, familiar yet distant. It’s a form seen through a veil.”
With this line in mind I like to think about the following pieces by Matt Cohen:
As it Truly is
April 7 I Thursday I 6 – 10 PM
On View By Appointment
April 8 – 9 I Friday – Saturday I 11 AM – 6 PM
April 10 I Sunday I 12 – 5 PM
Contact the artist to schedule an appointment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
24-20 Jackson Ave, Third Floor, Long Island City, Queens, 11101
More event information here.