A Question of Finish: thoughts on the work of Jeff Cowen

Jeff Cowen: Photoworks, König Books, 2016

‘A Question of Finish: thoughts on the work of Jeff Cowen’ is an essay commissioned  for Jeff Cowen’s book Photoworks, published by König in 2016, on the occasion of a major traveling exhibition of his work.

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A Question of Finish. Thoughts on the Work of Jeff Cowen.

David Campany

The invitation to write about the work of Jeff Cowen came by email. The phone in my pocket vibrated when I was in the café of the Met Breuer in New York, the new outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition I had come to see was titled Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, and it set out to explore the question of when a work of art is finished. The scope was impressive, from Renaissance masters, through modernism, to the present. There were works by Titian, Rembrandt, Turner, and Cézanne, as well as Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Janine Antoni, and Lygia Clark. There were things that had been cast aside by their makers for one reason or another and had ended up as official “works.” Alongside these were more recent examples where artists had deliberately left things unfinished, opening the possibility that this might be a legitimate way of achieving a different kind of completion. Perhaps this is what the prescient Leonardo da Vinci had in mind when he remarked: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Or maybe it is closer to the thinking of Marcel Duchamp in our own era. Having worked for eight years on his great opus The Large Glass (1915–23), he declared it “definitively unfinished.”

Although the exhibition had no overall style and drew upon works made in many different media, it was dominated by painting and sculpture, and I could not help noticing the near absence of photography. The omission could not have been due to institutional aversion, or indifference to the medium: the Metropolitan has been collecting and showing photography in ambitious ways for a long time. So, might it be that photography cannot be unfinished? Or, to put the question slightly less clumsily, is photography finished by default, in ways that would disqualify it from such an exhibition? If not, what might an unfinished work of photography look like?

I cannot say I know how the curators of that exhibition might answer such questions. And while we may agree or disagree with their responses, photography certainly complicates the matter of what is finished and what is unfinished. Indeed, those complications are part of photography’s gift and challenge to art. So, before coming to the work of Jeff Cowen, and by way of a sideways introduction to it, I would like to think through some of these complications.


One line of thought is that a photograph is essentially finished as soon as it is started. For example, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson felt it began and ended with the timely pressing of the shutter release. The “decisive moment”—an idea that was for a long time quite dominant in popular understandings of the medium—collapses noticing and photographing into one reactive gesture. Click. It’s done. The shutter opens, light floods in, the sensitized surface reacts, and the flowing world is translated automatically into a flat, frozen picture. Everything that must follow (processing the film, selecting a frame, printing it) was, for Cartier-Bresson at least, a fairly dull procedure for which he had little time or interest. A print was either correct or incorrect. What mattered most had already happened, instantly. The role of the resulting image was to refer back to that instant and celebrate it. It’s an extreme attitude, pure and legitimate in its own way, but not for everyone, and certainly not the only way of engaging with photography either as a maker or viewer. Let us say it represents one end of the spectrum of photographic possibility.

Not quite so near that end of the spectrum would be the position embodied by someone like Edward Weston, who talked of previsualizing his photographs, and exposing his film only once he knew what the final image would look like. Incomplete or unfinished previsualization could not be rescued later. Further along would be Ansel Adams, for whom the negative was like a musical score, while the print made from that negative was a performance, or interpretation of it. The negative is fixed and finished; printing contains possibilities.

Further along still, we might find the complications suggested by the fact that in being so dependent upon context, photographs are only finished once presented. In a frame, pinned to a wall, in a book, in a court of law, on the page of a magazine or newspaper, on a website, a billboard, and so forth. A photograph is completed by context, and thus by the viewer.

Many photographers consider their work as less to do with the single image than the organized arrangement of many images. As László Moholy-Nagy put in 1932: “The series is no longer a ‘picture,’ and none of the canons of pictorial aesthetics can be applied to it. Here the picture loses its identity as such and becomes a detail of assembly, as essential structural element of the whole.”[1] Or, as August Sander said two decades later: “A successful photo is only a preliminary step toward the intelligent use of photography […] photography is like a mosaic that becomes a synthesis only when it is presented en masse.[2] Or, as Walker Evans would remark another two decades on: “The essence is done very quickly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine. I think too that photography is editing, editing after the taking. After knowing what to take, you have to do the editing”.[3] Here photographs are fragments, to be put in relation to each other as a finished whole.

Far towards the other end of the spectrum we find the photograph understood as unfinished raw material, something to be added to by other media perhaps, or incorporated into a mixed media whole. Here photographing, processing, and printing are creative acts in a cumulative sequence of potentially endless creative acts. Already you may be thinking of Jeff Cowen’s work.


But let us consider a related meaning of the word “finish,” one with a particular significance for photography and its aesthetic possibilities: the finish of its surface. The medium is often characterized by its industrially standard surfaces. As a mass cultural object, photography displays surfaces that are “highly finished.” Moreover, it is sometimes said that photography has no surface, that it is somehow glassed off, first by being the result of light passing immaterially through a lens, then by the print having a finish that is indifferent to the image itself. Regardless of what the photograph depicts or fails to depict, its surface remains the same—homogenous, unbroken, and unresponsive. Some might say its surface is cold, lifeless, dead. Run your finger across the smooth surface of a photographic print and it will give you no indication at all as to what might be represented within, or beneath. On a screen the effect is even more extreme. This has been a defining quality of photography, a source of fascination and a bone of contention within the arts.

The earliest known photograph did have a surface finish that related to what it depicted. In 1826 Nicéphore Niépce coated a metal plate in bitumen of Judea, which hardened in reaction to the light focused upon it by the lens of Niépce’s simple camera. The softer areas were then washed away, leaving an image in relief: an image that could be felt with the fingers, but even when not touched, with a texture that could be apprehended by the eye. Soon after, the earliest papers used for photographic printing were quite rough. By contrast, the Daguerreotype process required a highly polished metallic surface. When smooth photographic papers began to be manufactured commercially in the 1850s, their sheen distinguished photography from other graphic arts. Manufacturers even double and triple coated their papers to emphasize this quality. After a while of course, the smooth finish became ubiquitous and ceased to call attention to itself in a novel way. But it is important to recall that photography had begun with a highly complex, even fraught relation to its surface character.

Here is the contemporary art photographer Craigie Horsfield on the subject:

“The surface of a photograph, the invisible place of a photograph, tangible and constantly deferred, uncompleted and unacknowledged: is the place of its evasion. Yet it was not inevitable that it should become so. At the beginning, photographs declared the surface; the techniques of manufacture were various and in the process of discovery, and the models were painting and printmaking, where the surface was clearly articulated. In photography, whether the support was of paper, metal, glass or cloth, the different methods necessitated a degree of manipulation of the surface. Most significantly of all, the idea of surface was engaged. However, as the convention of the world catalogues and recorded evidence became the principal motive of photography, the presence, the fact of the photograph, became increasingly insignificant, no longer looked at but looked through, as though to a world apart.”[4]

For Horsfield it is not photography itself so much as its page reproduction that came to chase away surface. It was only by foregoing an active surface and embracing the mechanically printed page that photography could become a standard means for the dissemination of worldly knowledge in pictorial form (including knowledge of the arts of painting and sculpture). It was against this backdrop that Pictorialist photographers had embarked upon their rejection of industrially smooth materials, in favor of artisanal papers and hand-brushed photographic emulsions that drew attention to the surface as a space of work and intention, a surface that could not be reproduced in all its tactility. When modernist photography then emerged in the late 1910s, it embraced those industrially standard papers and engaged with all they implied about the coming world of mass media and mass manufacture. The heightened interest in organic and industrial surfaces that we see in so much modernist photography from the 1920s to the 1950s is a kind of compensation for the sacrifice of its own surface. The gleaming architectural façades of modernism and the cracked hands that built and maintained them offered themselves equally to an apparatus and an audience entranced by their photogenic qualities. As Edward Weston, high priest of the photographed surface, declared in 1924: “The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.”[5]

Tellingly, modernist photography’s artistic suppression of its own surface took hold just as modernist painting was doing the exact opposite, moving away from describing the surfaces of the external world to focus on its own surface materiality. This is the trajectory that culminated in Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and 50s, with Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and others. But there were hidden affinities across the apparent opposition between the realist photograph and the abstract canvas. Where painting emphasized its own surface as an event space, each paint mark being the trace of a performed gesture (Pollock’s drips, for example), the photographic negative was also understood as an event space, capturing traces of a dynamic world. Think of reportage photography and its artistic offshoots (such as Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”). When the contemporary photographer Jeff Wall describes how, in reportage photography “every picture-constructing advantage accumulated over centuries is given up to the jittery flow of events as they unfold,” he could just as well be talking about Abstract Expressionist painting.[6]


And then, once it was clear that the whole polarizing modernist mindset had exhausted itself, photography was left exactly where it had always been, knee deep in its unresolved relations to surface, to finish, and to the unfinished. In photographic art since the 1960s, this has been a consistent presence, either as a haunting subtext or a subject of the work itself. Think of the photographic as it registers in the Pop experiments of Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton, and Robert Rauschenberg; or the postmodern image appropriations of Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine, where the surface of an original and its copy become indistinguishable; or the back-lit transparencies of Jeff Wall; the collage work of David Noonan or John Stezaker; the photo abstractions and color fields of Liz Deschenes or Walead Beshty; or Batia Suter’s blown-up photocopies derived from illustrated books. Surface plays a vital part in all these different approaches. Moreover, surface is just as active even in the “straightest” of photographic practices, exemplified by the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher and their students (Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Struth, et al). How is such imagery to be presented? Floating mounts behind non-reflective glass? Aluminum supports? Face-mounting the print onto perspex? Or one of the countless other permutations that have been developed in the last generation or so? When it comes to presenting photography in exhibition, no method is ever neutral or timeless. Whether emphasized or suppressed, the photographic surface never ceases to present. What can art do with it? And what can the eye do with it?


Today, photographic artists are more acutely attuned to their medium’s art history than ever before, including the vexed matters of surface and finish. I use the word “attuned” because it is not for me to say how consciously aware this or that practitioner may be of the history of their medium. But it seems reasonable to presume that in the era of the internet and the increasing visibility of the art of the past, we are all at least seeing it more.

If one wanted to plunge into what that attunement can look like, one need look no further than the work of Jeff Cowen. Whatever else Cowen has been doing in his practice for the last decade or so, it has included a revelatory exploration of the ways in which photography’s present is entangled with its past, and how its surfaces might be finished, unfinished, or something in between.

On the surface of it (so to speak), Cowen’s motifs appear to be as traditional as any—the still life, the portrait, the interior, and the landscape. This doesn’t make the work old-fashioned, since the depiction of people, rooms, spaces, and objects remains central and always will. Those genres, established well before the advent of photography, are with us because they have proved to be so flexible and adaptable. That said, Cowen’s work is difficult to date specifically. It could have been made at any point in the last century. Perhaps only its large scale gives it away.

Cowen also works in some sub-genres that do seem to belong more explicitly to photography. The view from a window or through a doorway, in which the picture appears to contain its own internal framing device, has always been a special attraction for photographers. Like shooting into a mirror, it’s a view that permits the contemplation of everything from the nature of optical realism and the question of what it is to frame (every camera frames, cuts out a portion of the world), to the notion of the picture plane and its significance for a medium with such a complicated relation to its own surface.

In addition, Cowen has produced images of art works made by others, to which he has given the collective name “Statua.” Each work in this series began with a photographic encounter with a sculpture, in a museum exhibition hall. Wandering with a Leica 35mm camera (the tool of choice for the classical “street photographer”), Cowen reacts more or less intuitively, gathering images that might be used later. It is worth noting here that in the medium’s early years, the photographing of works of art was a minor genre within the emerging art of photography.[7] Remarkable examples were produced by William Henry Fox Talbot, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, and Hippolyte Bayard, among others. It was an art of homage and interpretation. Fox Talbot made this clear in his publication The Pencil of Nature (1844–46), which included two very different photographs of his plaster copy of the classical Greek Bust of Patroclus. Each was taken from a different angle, under different light. Talbot wrote: “Statues, busts and other works of sculpture are generally well represented by the Photographic Art […] These delineations are susceptible of an almost unlimited variety.”

But Fox Talbot also noted that photographs of sculpture have the potential to produce knowledge far beyond the reach of the sculptures themselves. This function became dominant. Photography was soon relied upon as a documentary means of popularizing works of art in book form. As Walter Benjamin noted back in 1931, whatever impact photography might have as art is dwarfed by the cultural impact of the photographic reproduction of all art.[9] The twentieth century would insist that the two functions be kept separate. The photographic art of photographing art almost disappeared, although there were notable transgressions (for example, Man Ray’s 1920 photograph of dust on the surface of Duchamp’s Large Glass, an image that operates both as a document of an artwork and an artwork in its own right). But the truth is, any photograph of a sculpture’s three dimensions is a subjective response. It cannot be otherwise (and this is why, in general, photographs of sculptures tend to remain the intellectual property of the photographer, whereas photographs of paintings are regarded as copies and are thus the intellectual property of the painter).

Many of the sculptures to which Cowen is attracted are damaged in some way. He has spoken of identifying psychologically with this damage, although it is fair to say that few artists of the last century have identified with much else, least of all finishedness or perfection. The art of our era really is an art of fragments. “A lot of the figures are missing limbs or noses or something,”[10] he notes. In the West at least, sculpture damaged through the passage of time, or damaged in the act of being taken from its origin, introduced a new aesthetic of incompleteness. Or perhaps a better term would be “post-completeness,” since the sculpture that was once whole and finished is now diminished, and this diminishment prompts other aesthetic possibilities. Think of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum in London, making a fetish of their own damage as a way of clinging to British soil and resisting return to Athens, where they might join with other fragments. Or the Venus de Milo in the Louvre in Paris, the missing arms of the sculpture of a woman somehow improving or even “finishing” a work that may not have been as beautiful when it was whole. We’ll never know whether that is true, and whether its condition is part of its charm. Signs of damage are memory traces of the object’s biography. And when the camera encounters those traces, they are dramatized all the more. As Denis Hollier has put it: “Like the mutilated classical statue, a photograph seems to result from the art work’s encounter with a scythe of real time, showing the bruise imprinted upon an art work by a clash with a time not its own.”[11]

It is no coincidence that this modern aesthetic of the damaged or “post-complete” comes about in the era of photography’s snapping shutter and high finish. And when Jeff Cowen points out that he approaches all his subject matter with the same disposition, we can see that his artworks based on his photographs of other artworks are really not so different from his artworks based on his photography of faces, or vases, or trees.

“I’d say my approach to what I photograph, whether I look at things or people, is pretty much the same. Whether I photograph a still life or a person, initially I need to have a strong human reaction in my body, mind and soul for it to engage me.”[12]

Everything worldly bears witness to the passage of time. A human wrinkle. A scratched bowl. A gnarled branch. But while the camera can record those traces, it usually does so in denial of its own passage of time. That is to say, photography is still dominated by the idea of its immaculate conception. But what if the making of a photographic work, the genesis of it, the crafting of it, involved a passage of time that is distinct from the time of exposure? What if the photograph as object could involve its own accumulation of marks, traces, and scars? Well, Jeff Cowen’s use of paint flecks and photographic chemical stains provide some kind of response to that question.

“I use all kinds of photographic chemicals and processes and maybe a little paint on the photographic paper in ways that I cannot repeat a second time. I think every work I make is mainly about choices. An enormous amount of choices … It’s the sum of these choices that creates the work. It’s quite close to the process of improvised cooking …”[13]

There is no immaculate conception here. Cowen, to use his own term, “rebirths” his photographs in his darkroom. And this rebirth takes the form a reworking of the photographic skin. Look closely and you can see the reactivated surface of the image, pushing its industrial finish into something post-complete. Look closely and you can follow the accumulation of Cowen’s traces on that skin, the passages of creative time in the darkroom. You can follow the narrative of Cowen’s making, to the point where he has declared it finished. And at that point, there are thoughts left visible, and perhaps unfinished.

[1] László Moholy-Nagy, ‘A New Instrument of Vision’ (1932), in Telehor, vol. 1/2, 1936, p. 36.

[2] August Sander, letter to Peter Abelen, January 16, 1951, cited in August Sander, Citizens of the Twentieth Century, ed. Gunther Sander, (MIT Press, 1986), p.36.

[3] ‘Interview with Walker Evans,’ Art in America, March-April, 1971, pp.82-89.

[4] Craigie Horsfield “30.8.92, on Walker Evans,” in Witte de With Lectures 1992 (Witte de With, Rotterdam 1992).

[5] Edward Weston, entry for March 10, 1924, in The Daybooks of Edward Weston (Aperture, New York 1973), quoted in Nancy Newhall, ed., Edward Weston: the Flame of Recognition (Gordon Fraser, London 1975), p. 12.

[6] Jeff Wall, “‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art,” in Anne Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, eds., Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965–75 (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA/Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995).

[7] See Anthony J. Hamber, “Photography of Works of Art,” in Jacobsen, Ken & Jenny, Étude d’Après Nature. 19th Century Photographs in Relation to Art, 1997.

[9] Walter Benjamin, “A Small History of Photography” (1931), in One-Way Street and Other Writings (Verso, 1979), pp. 240–257.

[10] Jeff Cowen interviewed by Magdalena Kröner, in Galerie Michael Werner/Michael Werner Kunsthandel, Jeff Cowen: Scuplture Photographs, Catalogue, Cologne, 2016.

[11] Denis Hollier, “Beyond Collage: Reflections on the André Malraux of L’Espoir and of Le Musée Imaginaire,” Art Press, no. 221, 1997.

[12] “Jeff Cowen interviewed by Magdalena Kröner,” Berlin, March 2016.


[13] ibid.