Joyce Tenneson Cohen was shocked. So were the postal workers at Calvert Street Station, 20007, when minuscule Box 32367 began to overflow with thousand of photographs-some in envelopes, others in wooden cases from 5-by-7 to 16-by-20-all needing to packed into canvas mail sacks that Cohen hauled out to her car.
In January 1977, Cohen had sent a hopeful query letter to every college art department in the country, soliciting black-and-white self-portraits by female photographers for a potential anthology.
By June 15, she had received 4,000 images from 800 women. Eighteen months later her project is finished, thousands of submissions distilled into the 125 photographs of "In/Sights" which may be one of the hottest photo books of the year.
As the deluge of pictures grew, they eventuallly displaced Cohen from her home.
"Fortunately," she says, "my very next-door neighbor-a very elderly Spanish-speaking lady-was going off to Spain for three months, so I was able to spread the work out all over her house. I went through very bizarre shifts as I looked at the images. It was very hot-she has no air conditioning and the house is very Catholic, full of Madonnas. I think the Blessed Virgin was smiling at all these pictures."
By fall, Cohen, a 32-year-old photography teacher at the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College, had assembled the work into a 70-pound book dummy, with and introduction and a cover letter.
"I'd just call up publishers and ask for the art editor," she says, "and five times I lugged the dummy onto the train and up to New York and Boston. I actually took it to 12 publishers. All of them were interested, and three offered me contracts. I couldn't believe it. David Godine was the first one I talked with, and I finally decided to go with him."
She is talking in the living room of the house she shares with her psychiatrist husband and her 5-year-old son. It is light and airy, filled with emotive abstract art and an almost lifesized angel that hangs from the ceiling. Cohen herself is wwearing an angel around her neck-she calls it "body-art"-and her studio contains a pair of cardboard flaps she calls her "wings."
No doubt about it, both Cohen and her work defy compartmentalization. And just as her doctorate from Antioch is interdisciplinary, so is her approach to this project: It's at once photography, sociology, and art history.
Cohen's motivation for all this was to write a chapter in art history. She had spent the two years preceding her letter of inquiry making her own self-portraits, and then began researching the topic-only to find that virtually nothing existed.
"Historically," she says, "there is no anthology of self-portraits by women. There's not even a monograph. But in the last decade, the autobiographical statement has emerged as a major art form. We went through the women's movement, and a lot of media attention to the revelation of personal identity. My own work came at a time when I was going through a struggle, a process of self-investigation. They just poured out. Oh, it was like throwing up, almost. The book as a social document mirrors the struggle."
Indeed the pictures in this 6-by-8-inch book (Cohen describes its size, surprsingly small for a photo volume, as "intimate") range from the sublime to the ridiculous, reflecting the widely varied sentiments of the contributors. There are nudes that seem drearily rehearsed; there are also surprisingly insightful glimpses of personas uniquely revealed in the imagery. Perhaps because the book was intended to be interdisciplinary, some photos have much more sociological than esthetic content. The flaws in the collection are probably endemic to any effort so broad in scope-particularly when drawn from a submission process.
"I didn't do this as a feminist statement, but as a document of this decade and its outpouring of serious women artists," she says. "If I had done the book in the 1980s, I would have included men and women. I think this is the year of the man. I find that a lot of my men friends have become very interested in their own consciousness and how they can live better."
Cohen says she found two major themes in the work she received, "as well as a lot of cheesecake, Playboy-type stuff that surprised me.
"One theme was transformation, a sense of new identity, masks, montages, collages, you name it. The other was an exploration of sexuality, very understandable with the sexuality, very understandable with the sexuality of our decade. It took me a long time to edit the work down, two or three months.
"We had a tough time deciding on the cover. I didn't want a nude, and I didn't want anything that looked feminist. They finally chose one of my photos for the cover, which bothered me, I obsess over everything."
That obsession may pay off. The book has been chosen as one of the three most important of the year by the mighty "Time/Life Photo Annual," and both Popular Photography and American Photographer are running large excerpts of it in gravure.
"I think," says Cohen, "that for the first time in two years I don't feel depressed." CAPTION: Picture 1, Joyce Tenneson Cohen self-portrait with son Alexander; Picture 2, Joyce Tenneson Cohen, by Joe Heiberger - The Washington Post; Piure 3, Detail from a Cohen self-portrait