In a world dominated by digital technologies, the authenticity of Jeff Cowen’s (b. 1966) work has a distinctive appeal. The transient nature of photography is united with the tractability and immortality of painting. In a combination of the new and the old, modern processes are combined with portraiture to transform the subjects into something profoundly personal. Layers of meaning added through manipulation blur narratives, and transform subjects from the banal to the sublime.
With a career originating in street photography, Cowen changed his creative course due to the frustration found in the dependence on external subject matter. He notes: “I always had to wait for something to happen. I needed the right angle, the right subject, the right lighting. They hardly ever seemed to be there all at the same time. So I started inviting people to my studio, to work more like a painter.” Inspired by illustrations that are created mentally, the artist lifts subjects out of their original context and backgrounds. This alteration extends beyond the human subjects, encompassing landscapes and inanimate objects. A scepticism of portraiture is also revealed, instead concerned with capturing the human spirit.
Darkroom chemistry produces the unique characteristics of the compositions, treating the photographic surface with light and emulsions, streaks of paint, notches and holes. This innovative method softens the contours of subjects, rendering them mysterious. The masterful, tactile images contrast with the digital domination of life. It seems paradoxical that an oeuvre, with a range of historical elements, becomes such a significant expression of modern disciplines. Cowen’s process turns each image into something more than a depiction of reality, powerfully shifting its nature to be soft, ambiguous and personal.
Jeff Cowen: Photoworks, Huis Marseille, Amsterdam, from 11 March – 4 June. www.huismarseille.nl
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1. Jeff Cowen, Camille I & II (2006). Courtesy of the artist and Huis Marseille.