When it comes to displaying his prized photos, John Cohen doesn’t look to fancy albums or intricate photo frames like many of us. Still using a method he developed in the 1960s, John enjoys projecting his transparencies onto other objects. A technique that initially won him considerable fame, John talks to us about what makes this unique and how he still prefers to keep it analog.
I remember the days when granddad would show us his slide transparencies on the wall of our apartment, using a Kodak carousel projector. In an era of small-screen televisions, seeing photographs projected onto a large wall excited us kids. But that was just onto a white wall, as clean as possible, so as to not muddle the photographs in any way. It never occurred to any of us back then, that projections could be used for more than just display. By displaying them on other objects, they could be transformed into art forms by themselves. Quite by accident, photographer John Cohen discovered this technique and has been practicing it for some decades now. He calls it the Magic Lantern, and we spoke to him to understand what it’s about.
For those preferring pure photography, rather than digital manipulation, this is an exciting technique that anyone can do with very inexpensive equipment. The projector is all that is required
While most photographers prefer prints of their work to showcase them, John Cohen preferred to show photographs as projected transparencies from a young age. This was a way for him to share them with an audience in a much larger size and more brightly. “In those days, there was no such thing as computers and image software,” says John of his early year in photography. “So, although I liked photography, I had a feeling that I did not want to be confined by reality, and gradually I wished I could find a way to be more creative.” He also felt that options back then were limited to double exposures, long exposures, or add-ons like prisms. But the search to make his work significantly different from that of his peers eluded him until he stumbled upon it one day.
One evening, I planned to show my parents some of my holiday photos. I had set up the projector with one loaded slide (a portrait), and when I switched the projector on, as this was before I had raised the screen, the image landed partly on a wall and the curtains. What I could see intrigued me, and when I focused it onto the curtain, I could not only see the portrait but also the texture of the curtain fabric. Also the image was distorted by the curtain folds and looked rather interesting. This is when I thought to myself, I could photograph that and create quite a different portrait. It was this that made me decide later to try projecting images onto a number of different textures and objects. This was the beginning of my invented technique that I now call ‘Painting with Light using Projection Photography’.
The Birth Of The Magic Lantern
Now, this method opened up a world of possibilities for John, who spent a lot of time projecting portraits onto different items in his home, to learn and understand what they would look like. This led to him carefully choosing a screen for his projections, which would in turn become the subject of the photo he would then take. “I had a small butterfly collection, and I decided to project a country landscape, that included a river, onto the wings to create Butterfly Country,” says John. “With the same butterfly, I also projected a profile portrait to create Madam Butterfly.”
By always using the same Kodachrome stock, John was able to improve his Magic Lantern technique more quickly than if he varied his stock. Compared to today’s instantly gratifying photography methods, waiting times for processing photos seemed like infinity back then. So as satisfying as the results were, John had to be patient to improve this method in small increments. Experimenting in various ways proved to be successful. His 1967 photo Spirit of Spring was his first and possibly only Kodachrome transparency that consisted of a positive portrait combined with a colour negative on the same emulsion.
He’s Won Awards For This
John bagged the The London Salon Trophy in 1967 for this photograph. It opened up the doors to many solo exhibitions sponsored by Kodak (who were pleased as punch with his choice of Kodachrome for his work). “I soon realised that I could project colour negatives, and black and white images too,” says John of the different formats he dabbled in.
I remember having to wait for a week, for the transparencies to be processed and delivered, and the excitement at last at seeing the results.
John found it easier to get the right colors when using transparencies instead of color negative film. “The prints that were made from the negatives were so often totally wrong!” says John of his initial hassles with film processing labs. “Because the printer had no idea of what colour balance I wanted. But with transparencies, I was able to simply request that they match the colour.”
Embracing The Digital World
While analog is still his preferred medium, John Cohen has meandered his process into the convenience of digital photography and software to make these kinds of images.
“I have enjoyed learning how to be creative in the digital world. It is so much simpler to use, and because of this, I did not continue with my projection photography,” says John of his more recent approach to these images. Using software has freed up a lot of his time as well as allowed him to be more imaginative with the results. His image Galatea (see the lead image of the article) was blended with a few close-ups of small details taken from a bronze figure. This underwent further changes when John altered all the colors to create a new photograph, Pygmalion’s Desire.
“Although my technique is possible to do using analog equipment, I do not see much reason to, as working in the digital world is much easier. The only reason to tell photographers about it is for those turning away from using digital cameras.” Still, John loves to tell the idea behind the analog origins of his Magic Lantern technique to digital photographers new to embracing film. He’s found that many photographers are turning to analog photography for the first time and buying second-hand film cameras.
He’s told his story a few times, but it seems that John Cohen is the only one practicing this technique widely, for now. “I think I am on my own, as although I have given lectures to a number of photographic societies explaining how to do it, and I have shown how to do it on my website under the title Photographic Special Effects The Magic Lantern, but so far I have not heard from anyone doing it, and I have never seen any results by anyone else,” he tells us. And even if this can be achieved digitally, too, John feels that only the analog approach works in certain scenarios. “There are certain aspects that are much harder to achieve than with my method. For example, I have a study, Sea Nymph’s Mirror it is of a portrait that is projected onto a shell, so the contours of the shell affect the image, and although it can be done digitally, it would be far harder, and take longer to achieve.”
John opines that his original techniques allow photographers, who do not want to go down the digital route, to still be creative with film rather than simply recording reality. He hopes our readers will agree that this form of pure photography really justifies recognition in the art world, as it has certain qualities quite unlike those of any other media.
I have found the most satisfying time spent, is in the creation of the work. Frequently, regardless of the medium used, if one is truthful, the end result obtained, is not always exactly as initially conceived.
When you take a look at John Cohen’s projection photos for the first time, you find yourself staring back at history. Millennials like me are bound to have flashbacks of frames seen in movies during our youth. You might not find any two images to be alike in terms of subject or framing, but there’s a familiar feeling about many of them. As John says, a lot of these photos are a result of what he calls “accidental inspiration.” He sums it up by saying, “the excitement and pleasure, when inspired in this way, is hard to describe. So even if one starts with just the vaguest of concepts, it is worth spending some time experimenting. This stage is rather like the artist selecting and mixing the paints on his palette, not sure of what he might paint, but just feeling the need to make a start.”
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