Remembering Lynne Cohen

Lynne Cohen © Martin Lipman

When asked to explain her eerie photographs of uninhabited rooms, American-Canadian photographer Lynne Cohen used to talk about contradictions, artifice, deception and ambiguity. “It is strange how frequently things aren’t what they’re cracked up to be,” she said in a 2001 interview, “how often pictures of exotic places are unconvincing, how often luxury resorts resemble psychiatric hospitals and how often psychiatric hospitals look like health spas.”

That ambiguity is what makes Cohen’s photographs so engaging, creating a space that allows viewers to question and imagine. The artist herself was equally engaging. She was warm, witty, refreshingly direct and deeply cerebral. 

Lynne Cohen died of cancer in Montreal on May 12, 2014, at the age of 69.

Cohen was a frequent presence at the National Gallery. Born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1944, she moved to Ottawa in 1973 with her husband, philosopher Andrew Lugg, and soon began lecturing at the University of Ottawa. As early as 1976, former NGC Curator of Photographs James Borcoman recognized Cohen’s genius, and presented ten of her small black-and-white contact prints to the Gallery’s Acquisitions Committee. Each showed an interior or exterior space—a men’s club, a dry cleaner’s, an indoor swimming pool, a mobile home—each a gathering space for people, but without the people. A week later, Borcoman wrote to the artist, “the Acquisitions Committee met last Friday and agreed to purchase ten of your prints. The Committee was very excited about them.”

At the same time, Cohen’s work was being noticed by the National Film Board (NFB) Still Photography Division, which would later become the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (CMCP). Martha Langford, the CMCP’s first Director, remembers when the NFB marked International Women’s Year in 1975 with an exhibition of women photographers—among them, Lynne Cohen. Fresh out of art school, Langford was working as a gallery sitter at the exhibition. “I was very impressed with Lynne’s work,” she told NGC magazine. “It had a kind of authority. She had a vision of what she was going to do, and she went straight on from there.” The NFB purchased ten of Cohen’s prints from that show, and Langford continued to be a strong supporter. “She’s always been iconic for Canadian photography,” said Langford.

Lynne Cohen, Untitled (1970s), gelatin silver print. Canada Post Corporation [2014]. Reproduced with permission. © Lynne Cohen 

In 2002, Borcoman’s successor, Ann Thomas, organized No Man’s Land, a retrospective devoted to Cohen’s work, accompanied by a lush catalogue. Thomas had by then developed a close professional and personal relationship with the artist. “Lynne was an incredibly good artist to work with,” said Thomas in an interview, “because she was aware of every step that she took.”

When Cohen started making enlargements of her prints, for instance, it was not because she was following the popular trend. Rather, it was a very deliberate act that would help communicate her underlying message. Thomas recalls, “She’d call me from downstairs and say, ‘Ann, I have a print here, and I want you to take a look at it.’ And of course, I'd be completely bowled over by it, because she was taking a small contact print, an 8x10 print, and seeing the possibility in making the image less of a photograph and more of a set—a theatrical set, something that you would enter into.”

That clear sense of direction extended to her subject matter. Thomas remembers how she would sometimes spot a strange apartment lobby and recommend it to Cohen as a photographic subject. “She would sometimes visit these places, but she would never photograph them. I asked her one time, “Why didn’t you photograph that incredible lobby?” And she said, ‘Nya. It didn’t connect with me.’ She knew precisely what she was looking for, and it was never something easy.”

Lynne Cohen, Untitled (2008), chromogenic print. NGC

The NGC now has 154 of Cohen’s works, including those from the CMCP collection, and a number of recent large-scale colour prints. Her untitled image of a shooting range from 2011 is one of her first colour photographs. The bright blue and red stick-figure targets are reminiscent of children’s Playmobil toys. On close inspection, however, the viewer sees that they are riddled with bullet holes. All of the characteristic elements of Cohen’s work are present: the juxtaposition of innocence and menace; the suggestion of human presence; the symmetry, flat lighting and deep focus that borrow from commercial photography; and the underlying socio-political message. 

Other photographers have explored domestic, commercial and institutional interiors in their work, but often as a more descriptive or illustrative exercise. “Lynne Cohen’s work is not at all illustrational,” says Thomas. “It’s about engaging a critical part of your mind. It makes you want to go back again and look at your own environment.”

Among Cohen’s many honours were the 2005 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, and the inaugural Scotiabank Photography Award in 2011.

Lynne Cohen’s legacy remains in her outstanding photographic work and the memory of her vital personality. “They say there are people the likes of whom you will not see again,” says Thomas, “and I think, with her, that is really true.”


Lynne Cohen was always highly articulate when discussing her own work. Here are some of her most pithy remarks:

10 Great Quotes from Lynne Cohen

I sometimes describe myself as a performance artist because of what I have to do to get access to places I want to photograph.

I prefer to allude to things and leave it to the viewer to fill in the details. Like Brecht and Godard, I want the audience to do some work.

There is often an eerie human presence or a hint of an activity just finished or about to begin… Couches and chairs look like people, and there are many other suggestions of the human body: dummies, diagrams and silhouettes.

I’m acutely aware of things like surveillance cameras, ‘No Exit’ signs, fire alarms and grimy stains around light switches. Sometimes objects look pathological, sometimes not.

Coming to photography from conceptual art, and art and language, I felt the more deadpan the picture, the more likely it would appear to be about ideas.

All too often, the world seems to me to have been fabricated by an architect out of foam-core. The scale of things is nearly always off, and incidental things look monumental.

I have never been indifferent to the subjects I photograph, only ambivalent.

The big pictures have a seductive quality that draws you in. This is something I appropriated from art history. I use the sort of devices you find in Baroque painting to implicate the viewer physically and psychologically.

I take my work to be social and political but there is no concrete message. Perhaps that is why I feel much closer in spirit to Jacques Tati than to Michel Foucault.

The early work conjures up smells of ashtrays filled with cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, Freon, wet dog hair and air freshener. The later work conjures of smells of chlorine, metal, electrical wires, gasoline, plywood and formaldehyde.

All quotes are from interviews conducted by William A. Ewing, Vincent Lavoie, Lori Pauli and Ann Thomas, February 2001, and published in for Ann Thomas, No Man’s Land: The Photography of Lynne Cohen. Ottawa: Thames & Hudson and NGC, 2001.

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