Collector Peter Cohen Makes the Case for Amateur Photography's Place in Art History

Peter Cohen
(Photo by Kristine Larsen)

Collectors may be born every day, but for some it can take years to discover exactly what they are meant to collect. For Peter Cohen that moment of discovery came in 1990 at a small flea market in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. “While waiting for someone, I saw a plastic bin of snapshots that had been torn out of family albums,” he says. Without quite knowing why, he purchased five. The batch cost him eight dollars. “I came home and just looked at them,” he recalls. Since that day, Cohen has built one of the world’s largest private collections of amateur, or vernacular, photography. Although he says he’s “never even attempted to count” his holdings, he estimates he owns more than 35,000 of these largely anonymous photographs, a collection augmented by earlier purchases of Pop art prints, contemporary works on paper, and fine-art photography. Much of Cohen’s collection is stored in red, black, and orange canvas boxes stacked high in his West Village loft. Each is labeled with a specific yet openended category, such as “Couples,” “Christmas Trees,” and “Landscapes.” Inside the boxes, small photographs are protected by plastic sleeves. Some date from as early as 1890 — two years after George Eastman marketed the first rudimentary box camera, the Kodak #1, to a mass audience.

An investment manager by trade, Cohen, 65, began collecting art while a student at American University, in Washington, D.C. Over the next 15 years, he acquired a significant number of prints by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg (including what is perhaps the only Rauschenberg composition featuring the artist’s own visage), and Jasper Johns. The Pop prints still claim a place in Cohen’s heart — and his home: They hang, salon-style, on a kitchen wall.

Before he was smitten with vernacular photography, Cohen collected photogravures from Camera Work, the quarterly journal published by Alfred Stieglitz from 1903 to 1917. A wistful Baron de Meyer photograph of a man leaning against a doorway, titled Teddie and printed in Camera Work in 1912, hangs near Cohen’s own front door. He also owns several self-published books by Ed Ruscha, one of the pioneers of the artist’s-book genre.

Cohen approaches amateur photography with the zeal of a new convert, despite the fact that he’s been collecting it for more than 20 years. The snapshots have become something of an obsession, he admits. The collection is the product of some 40 weekends each year spent scouring flea markets and specialist galleries for images that catch his eye. Add to that countless evenings spent on eBay. “There are a huge number of collectors,” Cohen says, “who just collect one or two themes—girls with dogs, boys with bikes, snapshots from a particular year. I buy a wide range of pictures because I like the images. If I look through 50 photographs, there will be 50 different reasons why I like them.”

Over time, Cohen began to organize his massive holdings by theme, even making little booklets on individual subjects with reproductions. He has compiled a group of photographs taken through car windows that is reminiscent of Lee Friedlander’s “America by Car” series (though Cohen notes that most of his pictures predate Friedlander’s effort, which was initiated in the late 1990s), and another of double exposures. The grouping “Dangerous Women,” originally assembled as a gift for his sister, features photographs of glamorous females toting guns, bows and arrows, and other weapons. One delightful photograph from the 1910s shows two women standing proudly on either side of a hanging alligator.

When it comes to displaying the pictures on the walls of his apartment, Cohen resists organizing them by date or category, opting instead to mount a changing display of 50 images down a long hallway. “I like grids and repetition,” he explains. Elsewhere in the apartment, amateur images mingle with fine-art photography.

Cohen doesn’t seek out photographs with a connection to his personal history, though there has been one serendipitous coincidence. Years ago, friends picked up a family photo album from the late 1930s at an Upper East Side flea market and gave it to him as a gift. Flipping through, Cohen saw little of interest until he arrived at a picture of a man in a sailboat. He recognized the name of the boat, the Devshire. The man turned out to be Cohen’s grandfather. “It was spine-tingling,” he says. A model of the boat currently sits on a ledge that surrounds an elevated sitting area in the middle of his loft, accompanied by small sculptures (anonymous but for a bronze bust by Robert Graham) acquired at flea markets and galleries.

Cohen estimates there are fewer than two dozen vernacular photography collectors whose holdings, like his, number in the tens of thousands. (Many of them met up at a cocktail party during New York’s AIPAD photography fair in March, each toting a “brag book” of favorite images to share with the rest of the group.) But if the collector base remains modest, the vernacular genre has become increasingly desirable for museums that are building their photography holdings. In 2010 Cohen donated more than 250 individual photographs and seven albums containing hundreds more to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He recalls that Peter Galassi, the head of the photography department at the time, admitted that snapshots were not to his personal taste but acknowledged their importance to any institution wishing to build an encyclopedic collection. “Amateurs haven’t contributed very much to advancing painting and sculpture,” Cohen notes, “but they promoted photography, experimented with it, and sometimes went on to become professionals. Amateurs continue to make a huge contribution to the photographic world, and he [Galassi] wanted a few hundred pictures to represent that.”

A selection of the donated images was shown in a focused display at MoMA from May 2011 through March of this year. “Peter has a real openness to the vernacular tradition that allows him to recognize the very best of it,” says Sarah Meister, the MoMA photography curator who organized the exhibition. “I could look through 10,000 photographs at a flea market, and the percentage that I would find interesting would be a tiny fraction of the number that he has amassed that are interesting.”

Cohen is talking with a number of other museums about further donations from his collection — his adult children have expressed little interest in it, he says. Several years ago, while sifting through his collection to compile a gift to the Art Institute of Chicago, Cohen spotted a theme he hadn’t noticed before. A large number of photographs shot over a 70-year period featured groups of three women: three women soberly sitting in the backseat of a car in 1913, three schoolgirls posing on a window ledge in the 1930s, three women mooning the camera in the 1950s. The settings changed, but the central motif stayed the same.

Those photographs, numbering more than 500, became the basis for an exhibition that ran from October 2011 through this past February at the Art Institute and was titled “The Three Graces,” after the iconic Greco-Roman subject. “We found it really represented the cultural history of photography,” exhibition coordinator and catalogue author Michal Raz-Russo says of the show. The abundance of photographs from the 1920s of women in swimsuits, for example, could be explained in part by the fact that paid leisure time had recently become more widespread. “Camera companies seized on that moment,” Raz-Russo explains. “All the Kodak advertisements from that period say that you’re supposed to take pictures of your vacation, capture the moments, and bring them back home.”

While collaborating on the exhibition, the contents of which he ultimately donated to the Art Institute, Cohen developed his own theory: A significant number of the pictures of three women were taken by a fourth woman. “I have some pictures of one group of women in front of the Prometheus statue at Rockefeller Center, and it’s a whole set,” Cohen says. “Instead of asking a stranger to take a picture, they just kept passing the camera around.” This theory — one of many Cohen would float in the course of an afternoon — hints at the sleuthing pleasures of collecting amateur photography. It is an exercise in historical analysis as much as connoisseurship. Inspecting the snapshots in his hallway, Cohen stops at one of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, shot from high above Central Park West. An imposing balloon of Uncle Sam looms over the crowd. “I can tell you that this was taken between 1944 and 1948, in part because Central Park is in particularly shabby condition, and that’s because it wasn’t maintained during the war and took years to get back in shape afterward,” he says. “All of us who are interested in this have developed a little expertise at dating pictures from women’s clothing, license plates, how many stars are on the flag, and other little tricks.”

Cohen’s high-ceilinged loft is also home to Lynn Davis’s sublime 1990 photograph of Grand Geyser in Yellowstone National Park and some surreal photocollages by the artist Jane Hammond, a friend who often incorporates Cohen’s cast-off photographs into her work. A vertical arrangement of photos of nude torsos by artists such as Sheila Metzner and Edward Mapplethorpe (Robert’s brother) creates a sinuous line down a narrow wall. A large, whimsical collage by the Brooklyn-based artist McKendree Key, made from cut-up children’s books and depicting the great Nike shoe spill of 1990, is illuminated by floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking 11th Street in Greenwich Village. Cohen also has a number of works by Marco Breuer, a photographer who makes atmospheric, abstract compositions without a camera by various techniques including exposing and abrading chromogenic paper.

It seems perplexing that while Cohen has a personal connection to much of his fine art — a number of his drawings and photographs were made by friends — the snapshots record the lives of strangers. Why fill a home with images of other people’s families and experiences? “I like it because it tells a story, or a teeny part of a story that remains unfinished,” Cohen says. “You just have a snapshot in time. I wonder, what happened before this? What happened after?”

To see works from Peter Cohen's collection, click the slide show.

This article appears in the July/August issue of Art+Auction magazine.