It is both supremely wonderful and terribly agonizing to have a creative father. I can say this with some authority as my father was a musician. He played the piano and had perfect pitch. I remember him listening to a song on the radio and then plunking down at our piano and playing it, never having heard it before that.
That creativity also had a darker side. My dad was prone to live within himself. He could be guarded and, at times, kind of inaccessible. But through all of that, he was a deeply loving father. It still pains me to have lost him years ago. I remember so much about him — the feel of his stubble brushing my face when he hugged me, the smell of his aftershave, his quirks and his antipathies. I loved, and love, him dearly.
I’m telling you all of this because a book by photographer Paul Cohen called “Things Aren’t Always as Mother Reports” (Dewi Lewis, 2021) has come across my desk. Looking through the book brought those memories flooding back. It is, at its core, a book about the relationship between a father and his sons. If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be “gorgeous.” But I can’t describe it in one word, so here are some more!
Throughout the years, family has been a popular subject for photographers. It’s no surprise really — family members are usually the people closest at hand. Photographers of all kinds have explored the subject, among them Sally Mann, Eugene Richards, Larry Sultan, Phil Toledano and Nick Waplington. Cohen’s book joins a well-established tradition.
One of the things that Cohen most wanted to do with these images was to get to know his sons better. There’s nothing surprising about that. I imagine that’s one of the things most people do when photographing their families, whether they’re aware of it or not. That, and securing their memories in a way they can be revisited. Cohen does this but also wanted to let his boys be themselves, free from his parenting.
Val Williams, a curator and author who is also a professor of the history and culture of photography at the London College of Communication, notes that Cohen’s boys weren’t really all that interested in being photographed (surprise!) and Cohen agreed with them.
“When we went out specifically to make pictures, I’d let them do whatever they wanted and I’d photograph them doing it,” Cohen said. “They decided where we went and what we did. … They didn’t choose to do anything special. We ate together and we did homework, we went out to run errands, played football, rode bikes, went to the woods. … I let them call the shots and I let things unfold. When they pushed boundaries, and did things they knew they weren’t allowed to do, I paid attention and photographed them instead of telling them to stop. Being there with a camera in amongst it, physically down on their level, watching things without interfering, paying attention to them in a way that was different and outside of the routines of everyday parenting meant I could take seriously the significance of the fleeting moments that often get lost in the day-to-day wrangling of young boys.”
The resulting images in “Things Aren’t Always as Mother Reports” are, regardless of whether his sons realize it now, a valuable document. In a way, it’s almost irrelevant that they were made with the care and craft of an artist. But they were, and that gives them an added depth and eloquence.
Perhaps one day, Cohen’s sons will be able to look at this book of images they created with their dad and relive its making. And more than that, maybe it will provide concrete evidence of the kind of memories I have of my own father.
I have a few photos I took of my father, and when I look at them, they aren’t just good photos (at least I hope they are) but vessels that contain memories of the times we spent together. Cohen’s sons can replay the memories they have of their father while also reveling in the document they created together.
“Things Aren’t Always as Mother Reports” is a special document of a time and place that explores the bond of fatherhood. Family is many things: complicated, joyful, sad, exhilarating, and something that exists swaddled in the time and place in which it existed. Cohen’s book speaks to all of that, with a focus on a father’s relationship to his sons.
And as Williams, again, says in the book’s afterword: “Paul Cohen’s photographs have a … gentle way of questioning and exploring the notion of family, a profound sense of slippage, of ambiguity, of participation in the puzzling drama of childhood. … There is a slowness, almost stately, as the two boys and their father explore, among London’s shattered landscape, the perplexing question of kinship.”
You can see more of Cohen’s work on his website, here. And you can find out more about the book and buy it here.