Interview: Stephen Cohen about Photo la 2011


I found interesting to interview th Founder, Producer and Director of Photo la, before and after his art fair



bAM:  You have a very good eye, you are a long lasting and successful gallery owner, you could be satisfied as is, what kind of excitement do you find in organizing Photo L.A.?

stephen-cohen5Stephen Cohen: I studied art and film and college and graduate school.  Photography was a way for me to explore my world and find wonderful things that could be shared with people.  Outlets for exhibiting work back then were rare and I moved onto film school, another difficult area in which to succeed.  So creating was always a part of who I am.  There are reasons for this but not worth the analysis it would take to explain.  Suffice it to say that making something happen that wasn’t there before is something I get a kick out of.  That I was able to make what started out as a very small event to find collectors in Los Angeles, into a career was a wonderful accident.  That this career could expand the wonders of art and art appreciation to an ever expanding audience was unexpected.

BCh:  I’m amazed because since your beginnings as a Director of photo l.a. you have found the right pattern which is to host galleries and in parallel to organize lectures and collecting seminars. Which Photographer, as a person, impressed you the most? And why?

Stephen Cohen: Programming has been a major part of most every fair I’ve produced.  It would seem strange to me not to have a collecting walk-through or lecture as part of the event.  Expanding photo l.a. XX to four days and having artLA projects join this January’s event has given us the opportunity of having the most and most varied program ever.  We are very proud of the artists, curators and collectors that are working with us this year.

I couldn’t begin to answer your question about a specific photographer that has impressed me.  I’d have to consider all of the photographers I’ve admired from the history of photography as well as those I’ve come to know by having a gallery and producing the fairs.


BCh:  Is there any change of aesthetic or purpose in the American Photography since Twenty years? Which kind of change?

Stephen Cohen: I wouldn’t know how to characterize “American Photography” since it is as varied as there are Americans.  With the internet, increased world travel and exposure to other cultures and countries, photography is truly an international language that gets exposed through galleries, museums, websites and even, Facebook.  On a sociological level one can only marvel about how people are presenting themselves visually to hundreds of millions of people — “friends” — that they will never meet or know.

Obviously, with the advent of digital photography and the internet, there is an over-abundance of images that are thrown at us on any given day.  Because of this over-saturation of imagery we encounter, it’s more important than ever to be educated in looking at pictures — really looking at images with an educated and experienced eye that comes from looking at the work of past and current masters of photography.  Visiting galleries, museums and art fairs — photo l.a, photo NY and artLA, for example — are the best way to train your eye to be able to separate the good from the great and to better appreciate what a visual artist is trying to convey.

While photography took a detour with photoshop, and other technical magic, it’s encouraging to me that many younger photographers are not just looking into themselves, but are looking out at their world, their environment, their neighborhoods.


BCh:  How do you explain that passion for photography from almost every one and every generation here in Los Angeles?

Stephen Cohen: I don’t think this “passion” you speak of has always been so much a part of the life of the average Angeleno over the generations.  Historically, photography was a luxury that was first available to the wealthy and academically inclined.

But in recent times, with the advent of digital photography, and the internet, taking pictures (an interesting phrase worthy of its own discussion) is democratized.  The technical aspects, while being more complex than ever, paradoxically, are made available to anyone without any academic training.  Instant photography is being used by those who in the past did not have the ability to express themselves — autistic and severely withdrawn people, those with physical handicaps that limit mobility, deafness and even blindness are now able to reach out and bring a taste of their experience to others.  And, again, I cannot overstate the importance of the internet in all of this.  Test it out yourself and google any subject, from any corner of the world, then hit the images tab and see what comes up.

But with all of this bounty of imagery it is important to educate one’s eye and to sensitize their visual palate by looking at the work of many artists as filtered by gallerists, curators and publishers.

BCh:  What Photography Exhibition have you most enjoyed in 2010, and why?

Stephen Cohen: That’s difficult to answer.  I’ve seen so many exhibits and yet I’ve seen so few.  I would not want to leave out any exhibit by the quality of my memory at this moment but I can say I enjoy being challenged as well as engaged.  I love seeing the work of some of my favorite photographers even if I know the work well and I love finding something new to me.  There are also “exhibitions” in monographs and magazines.  So I haven’t said “who” but I think I’ve given the “why”.
BCh:  Concerning the art market. Do you notice a noticeable change of collectors “attitude”?

Stephen Cohen: Since photo l.a. began in 1992, and photo l.a. XX is the 48th art fair I’ve produced, I can say there are more collectors now than before.  Is photography “art” is not a question anymore.  One doesn’t have to be wealthy to be a collector and one doesn’t have to have large holdings of art to be a collector.  I think a true collector is someone who feels an attachment to a work of art.  And works of art are everywhere to be found.  Vernacular photography is something I’ve been devoted to for decades and it is very inexpensive.  Collectors of contemporary art include photography in their collections.  Work being photo-based is a non-issue.  Some elitists may cringe at artists being called “photographers”, but to me, it’s another non-issue.  No one denigrates an artist by referring to them as a “painter”.  Perhaps there are those who still are stuck on the mechanics of how the equipment works, but it’s not the machine that makes the picture, it’s the eye, the heart and the mind of the artist that does it.


BCh: You expect for sure a great success for this coming 20 years of photo l.a.., but what is your best personal wish?

Stephen Cohen: Everyone involved with the production of the fair strives to make it better each year.  There are so many variables — the economy, the mix of galleries that changes every year, the new artists being shown and even the weather — that all I hope for is that we have a large turn out of interested people who will enjoy themselves, that many of them will purchase work (since that’s why the dealers come here) and that the moon is shining just right — and the weather is just the right mix of being nice but not too nice so that people won’t want to come indoors.

Something new this year will be the look of the fair from it’s entry, the lobby lounge and VIP balcony lounge and our curated Video Lounge and monitors for viewing a rotation of artist videos.  Many of the artists will be in attendance, we have many book signings and we also have two monumental figures in American photography as our Honored Hosts for the opening benefit reception, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore.

Beatrice Chassepot fo bAM, December, 31th 2010


Interview “AFTER” with Stephen Cohen

bAM: What is your opinion about this Twentieth show of Photo l.a.?

Stephen Cohen: In many ways I feel it was the best show to date. While it did not  have the same number of galleries as the 2008 & 2009 editions at the Barker Hangar, the quality of work, the design of the fair and the installation of the art all came together in a seamlessly beautiful fair.  The responses during and after from collectors, curators, exhibitors and attendees has all been ver positive.  Rolling in a smaller artLA into the fair worked out better than expected. The trend of the fair was toward the contemporary.  Contemporary is what is happening in the art market right now so it was appropriate and a great success. Having survived 20 years in Los Angeles is an accomplishment but it wasn’t just survival this year — it was a joyous celebration of 20 years and of the current state of art in Los Angeles.  I think it portends great things for photo l.a. 2012 as well as artLA 2011 this September.
Beatrice Chassepot fo bAM, Los Angeles, January 20th, 2011