Last week, I flew to Chicago for the opening of “The Three Graces” at the Art Institute of Chicago. My dear friend, Peter J. Cohen, donated this remarkable collection of 500 photographic portraits to the AIC when they promised they would keep the portraits together as a significant historical of depiction of the 20th century woman in America from 1900-1970. The photographs are hung somewhat chronologically from left to right, pinned closely together in a band of gray paint across the gallery wall.
If having a show at MoMA and the Art Institute of Chicago signifies making in the art world, Peter J. Cohen has certainly now made his mark as the collector of ‘other peoples photographs’. He has spent a good chunk of his life scouring flea markets, estate sales, and the internet for formally intriguing and abandoned photographs by anonymous photographers. Soon enough, he amassed boxes and boxes of photographs in his Greenwich Village apartment. With the help of a few interns, he managed to catalog approximately 20,000 photographs that he had collected; photographs of people he didn’t know, taken by amateur strangers that were just trying to capture a special moment. The lines of collector, curator, and artist are blurred in this case. Individually, these photographs are worth very little, probably a few dollars on ebay I would guess. But amassed, sorted, and curated in large specific groups, seemingly worthless stuff on ebay becomes art and the collector becomes artist, selecting each piece to belong to a greater whole that our best museums’ curators deemed worthy of their walls.
“The Three Graces” is a small piece of this collection and it once lived in a box in Cohen’s living room labeled, “Women in Groups of Three”. Surprisingly upbeat and humorous, a lot of these photographs are of women expressing themselves freely in front of a camera, whether they are racing through a forest nude in the 1960s or hamming it up in the boyish fashion look known as La Garçonne from the 1920s. Here are few examples of some of the photographs from this collection. Look carefully, a relative of yours may be in one of these scenes: