This is the first large-scale museum retrospective of the American photographer Jeff Cowen. In an age when the world, and the medium of photography in particular, is dominated by digital techniques, and the attribute of authenticity is acquiring ever more value, the work of Jeff Cowen holds a special place. In Cowen’s approach the transience and ephemerality of photography is paradoxically united with the immortality and tractability of painting. The modern aspect he imparts to his work is in using the photographic process to transform his subjects into something profoundly personal. The layers that Cowen adds to his photographic works blur the original meanings of his subjects, soften their sharp contours, and affect a transformation that lifts them from the banal to the sublime.
Jeff Cowen was born in New York and trained there, except for the year of 1987, when he studied in Japan. In 2001 he moved to Paris, and since 2007 he has lived and worked in Berlin. From 1988 to 1990 he was assistant to the American photographer Larry Clark, and from 1990 to 1992 he assisted another, Ralph Gibson. The work of these photographers has doubtless had an influence on Cowen’s own photography, but this is not immediately visible.
Cowen began his career as a street photographer in New York, but grew frustrated by the fact that he depended on external subject matter to express himself: “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. With more experience I realized I wanted to completely influence what was before me, to give birth to what was inside of me rather than being dependent on the outer world. So I started inviting people to my studio, to work more like a painter.”
During his studies in Tokyo in 1987 Jeff Cowen will have come into contact with the Japanese appreciation for the ‘patina of time’ that is shown, for instance, by the bark of an old tree or the erosion of a statue. “I’m interested in the idea of what in Japanese is called wabi-sabi – the achingly beautiful melancholy of life,” said Cowen in a recent interview. “All beauty must fade, and everything passes. I think this kind of truth infiltrates every human experience –
knowing that everything will pass, will decay.” The transformed images in Cowen’s photographic works invariably form a direct reflection of the photographer’s own emotional world. Jeff Cowen’s love of beauty means that his art works are ultimately concerned with mortality.