Lynne Cohen has been photographing domestic and institutional interiors since the 1970s. Using an 8 x 10 view camera, she takes detailed pictures of living rooms and laboratories, private clubs and swimming pools, all notably void of human figures. Cohen was awarded the first Scotiabank Photography Award in 2011 and a selection of her work is now on display at Toronto’s Design Exchange.
The exhibition is housed on the museum’s third floor. Entrance is permitted via a locked elevator, which a member of staff must activate. Visitors who are feeling a bit dimwitted, as I was, might not realise this. Instead, they might find themselves wandering the empty second floor in confusion. This is the home of the old stock exchange, a large Art Deco hall with the echoing acoustics of a school gym. It is a peculiar way to find an exhibition, but oddly appropriate; it seems somehow fitting to view Cohen’s empty interiors after wandering through a strange, empty space oneself.
An unsettling absence dominates Cohen’s photographs. These are familiar spaces made strange: offices without workers, homes without dwellers. Cohen’s work highlights a discrepancy between the way interiors are experienced and the way they are seen in photographs. Ordinarily we inhabit interiors: we eat, sleep and work in them. In a photograph the interior is placed at a distance, it becomes remote. Indeed, it can seem so unfamiliar that the architect Adolf Loos noted, ‘the inhabitants of my interiors do not recognise their own house in photographs’. Seen through a lens, Cohen’s rooms are unfamiliar in their emptiness, almost eerie in their quietude.
Yet there is humour too, in kitsch living rooms, and the comically uniform portraits of Men’s Club (c.1981/90). Cohen has a keen sense of absurdity. Denying her work has any structured sociopolitical agenda, she states she is ‘closer in spirit to Jacques Tati than Michel Foucault’.
The exhibition is hung in a peaceful, sombre space, with high ceilings and screened windows. Its title, ‘Nothing is Hidden’, is apt: Cohen exposes the spaces we live in, their forms, functions, and moods. The built environment has been her subject for over 30 years and she treats it with a discerning wit. As Cohen explains: ‘I started out probing the boundaries between the found and the constructed, the absurd and the deadly serious, the animate and the inert, and I’ve been probing them ever since.’