Jeff Cowen

American, 1966–present

Cowen grew up on New York’s Upper West Side and graduated as a University Honours Scholar in Oriental Studies from New York University and Waseda University Tokyo. In the late 1980’s he moved to the Meatpacking District in New York City and earned his living as a Taxi Cab Driver. His first series West 14th Street, in which he photographed the district’s transvestite scene, was purchased by the New York Historical Society for its permanent collection. In the following years, he worked as an assistant to Larry Clark and Ralph Gibson, and later he studied academic drawing and painting at the Art Students League and the New York Studio School. 

Cowen uses only analogue photography in a variety of formats from 35mm to 8 x 10. All the prints are made in his customised darkroom. The analogue image taken by the camera is not the final product, but marks only the starting point of the artistic reflection of the motif. His study of painting and life drawing, has had a great impact on his concept of photography. He is interested in mating the power of photography with the power of painting, and his unique images are created by using different chemicals and other mediums and hand work. In some cases Cowen totally omits the photographic action and works on the surface of the negative directly with chemicals, and a variety of instruments, which leads to an abstract painterly image. 

Cowen is interested in the question of how the sensory experience of three-dimensional plasticity can be reproduced in the two-dimensionality of the photographic print. The lines between photography and painting blur into one entity. Even in cases when we recognise the classical motifs of art history, the singular genres and individual subjects are rendered to a profound essence. As Cowen puts it: “I use photography as a language in order to communicate the unspeakable and the spiritual.”

In 2007 Cowen relocated his studio to the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and has been represented by Michael Werner Kunsthandel in Germany since 2012. His works are in numerous public and private collections. In 2016 and 2017 he had his first comprehensive Museum surveys at the Ludwig Museum Koblenz and the Huis Marseille Museum for Photography in Amsterdam. In the same years, the private collection MAP from Bremen, Germany acquired a substantial body of Cowen’s work from the last 10 years.