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Lynne Cohen

Photograph of Lynne Cohen

(1944- )

Lynne Cohen, 1976

Photograph, LABORATORY, by Lynne Cohen


Laboratory, by Lynne Cohen

Internationally recognized as a leading contemporary photographer, Lynne Cohen has, for many years, had a consistent vision of exposing the interiors of the Western world.

Born in Racine, Wisconsin, Cohen has lived and worked in Canada since 1973. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, she obtained her masters degree in Art from Eastern Michigan University in 1969. During her undergraduate studies, Cohen spent a year at the Slade School of Fine Art, in London. Here, she was influenced by the works of Richard Hamilton, an important contributor to British pop art. In her student days, Cohen's main interests were sculpture and printmaking, tracing design elements taken from store catalogues to use in her prints. Her medium of choice is now photography.

As an educator, Lynne Cohen has influenced many of her students. She was a lecturer in Photographic Art at Eastern Michigan University from 1968 to 1973. She then taught at Algonquin College, in Ottawa, from 1973 to 1975. Since 1974, Cohen has been a lecturer, and now professor, of Visual Art at the University of Ottawa.

Cohen began her career in the 1970s, by photographing interior landscapes with black-and-white film. Her subjects included living rooms, offices, meeting halls, men's clubs, and beauty salons. She has said that the reason behind her choice of location is probably as much about her own biography as about the culture — they meet somewhere in between. Cohen shoots the spaces as she finds them; they are not modified in any way. While the places really exist, one might get the impression of viewing a stage set, with a large empty floor space in the foreground and high ceilings with lights overhead. The large scale of Cohen's photographs invites the viewer into the image, but she allows the viewer to make his or her own interpretation of the work. She does not photograph people and has said that she wouldn't know where to put them. The images she produces, however, are filled with a lingering human presence.

Cohen shoots with an 8x10 inch view camera. Although the large format camera is a bulky tool, its advantage is its ability to manoeuvre both planes of the lens and the film, allowing for complete control of the image. Cohen takes great care in composition and, as a result, the images produced have a sharpness and clarity that captures every detail. To finish her work, she frames her photographs in Formica, a layered plastic, flecked with a colour and texture that echoes some specific element of the photograph. For the purpose of exhibition, she does not always attach a date, title, or description. This gives her work a timeless quality.

In the 1980s, Cohen's direction changed somewhat; she became interested in the interiors of more authoritarian institutions such as laboratories, training centres, classrooms and firing ranges. These interiors gave her work an edginess not previously seen. The images are more threatening and more confrontational, but they always retain some small component of her cunning humour. One image, for example, shows a large pile of sandbags in what looks to be a military training centre. Behind screens, on a back wall, there is a sign posted that reads: "Play at your own," and the viewer is left to complete the sentence.

Factories and spas were added as locations in the 1990s. Her interiors retain the same basic elements of her style, but her recent use of colour film now adds a new dimension to the images. Now, the greenish water in a pool at a spa seems even more uninviting, taking on the appearance of an unidentified liquid.

Over the years, Cohen has received several awards. She received the Logan Award from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1967 and several grants from the Canada Council, including the Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award in 1990. She has shown her artwork in numerous group and solo exhibitions. Her first major retrospective exhibition, entitled "No Man's Land," was mounted in 2001. The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Canada, in collaboration with the Musée de l'Elysée, Lausanne, and will be circulated until 2003.

Cohen's works are held by many Canadian institutions, most notably the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. Internationally, her works are held by the Art Institute of Chicago; Fonds national d'art contemporain, Paris; International Center of Photography, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum voor Fotografie, Antwerp; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and the Australian National Gallery.

Art critic and novelist John Berger wrote that while a photograph records what is seen, it always, by its very nature, refers to what is not seen. Lynne Cohen's photographs confirm this notion and make us reflect upon the environments in which we live and create for ourselves.


Cohen, Lynne. — Lynne Cohen : l'endroit du décor = Lost and found. — [Paris] : Hôtel des arts, [1992]. — 101 p.

____. — No man's land : the photography of Lynne Cohen. — Lynne Cohen and Ann Thomas. — New York : Thames & Hudson ; Ottawa : National Gallery of Canada, 2001. — 160 p. — Also published in French, entitled No man's land : les photographies de Lynne Cohen

____ et al. — Occupied territory. — New York : Aperture Foundation, 1987. — 111 p.

Ewing, William A. et al. — Camouflage : entretien avec Lynne Cohen [online]. — Musée de l'Elysée. — [Cited May 3, 2002]. — Access:

National Gallery of Canada. — Environments here and now : three contemporary photographers, Lynne Cohen, Robert del Tredici, Karen Smiley. — Ann Thomas. — Ottawa : National Gallery of Canada, 1985. — 92 p. — Also published in French, entitled Environnements d'ici et d'aujourd'hui

No man's land : the photographs of Lynne Cohen. 1 February-12 May 2002. — National Gallery of Canada. — [Cited May 3, 2002]. — Also available in French. — Access:

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