Summer Residency 2010: In the Present Tense

June 23, 2010

One in a series of occasional dispatches from Barnett Cohen, a Brooklyn-based photographer who is taking part in SVA’s Summer Residency Program in photography.

My mind is a blur as I type. It is 9pm and I am working in one of the well-equipped digital photo labs at SVA, an Epson 4880 printer whirring behind me, grinding out my prints that I hang on a nearby wall to check for their color temperature. A lot of thought and time has gone into these prints—they form part of a project on only children that pre-dates my residency—but right now I am just robotically printing and hanging, printing and hanging.


I am thinking less about my prints than I am about my alarm clock: I am getting up at 4am tomorrow morning to prep for a shoot at 6. The shoot is part of a portraiture series on which I am working during my residency, entitled “Present Tense,” where I ask my subjects to repeat activities/exercises that force them to forget the camera, to push them into the present, to look into but past the lens, as a fellow resident aptly described it.


After a game of e-mail tag, I assume that the shoot is good to go and going to go according to plan (though no shoot ever does, and that’s not such a bad thing). I also assume the shoot is going to end at, say, 8am. Now my mind is moving in minutes: After the shoot can I squeeze in two hours of photo editing before I head to the city to pick up a box for my prints at Adorama, before I dash to SVA to scan negatives, before I meet with one of my kick-ass advisors, Eric Weeks, at 2:20? Everything needs to get done and not because I am getting paid—if only—but because I am throwing everything I have at this residency and then some.

While my eyes are tired and I am looking forward to some bulletproof Chinese food and a couple of beers, I love the work. I love the work enough that I could work all night, but the building closes soon. Sitting here, I am reminded of what the artist Bastienne Schmidt told us, the summer residents, when we visited her home/studio: “Art is not hard,” she said, “you just have be obsessed.”

Images: Barnett Cohen, (top) Shaka, from “Only Child,” 2010; (bottom) Shamrock, from “Present Tense,” 2010.

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