No Context for Mariana Cook

Mariana Cook came to speak at the Athenaeum on Tuesday evening.  Her photographs were stunning, but so was the lack of context offered by the artist about her work.

Billed by both the Ath and her own website as "the last protege of Ansel Adams," Cook is clearly a talented photographer, and her work reflects her studies with Adams. For example, like Adams she shoots in black and white and does some landscape work. Beyond those base similarities, her work echoes the clean style, high contrast, and simple subject matter of Adams. Even if I didn't think her art was notable -- lots of important museums do; her works are part of the permanent collections at the Met, MoMA, and the Smithsonian, to name a few. Her art is not in question here, but rather her (in)ability to reveal something about herself and her work.

For her talk, Cook showed a number of her portraits (most of which, if not all, were readily available on her website) and said a few words on each photograph, sometimes only mentioning the subject's name and occupation. That was it. Though her commentary revealed some clues as to her methods, working style, and occasionally short anecdotes about her notable subjects, she gave almost nothing of herself to the audience.

Katherine Graham, Jorge Louis Borges, Francis Crick, Merce Cunningham, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jamaica Kincaid, Lillian Hellman, Sidney Janis, Philip Johnson and David Whitney, Francois Mitterrand, Dorothy Norman, Mirium Rothschild, Steven Spielberg, Dorothea Strauss, Maya Lin and Daniel Wolf -- do those names mean anything to you? I only knew about 7 out of 17 of those names and I consider myself to be at least moderately culturally literate. How about a little context? A good speaker neither overestimates nor underestimates the audience's intelligence (or in this case, cultural literacy). For an address to a school with limited theater opportunities, no arts programs, almost complete neglect for creative talents (save Ath events like this one), Cook might have tailored her comments to a more ignorant, but curious crowd.

Her background as a fine art photographer was also unclear. To have had the opportunity to photograph really important, influential individuals, such as the publisher of the Washington Post, a founding member of the Beat movement, the former president of France, and a three-time Academy Award winning director, one must ask-- how? why? Cook never addressed how she was able to gain access to these individuals. For example, Cook photographed Michelle and Barack Obama in 1996 as part of her book featuring images of couples-- how did the young politician and his wife come across her radar?

These were the only facts I could gather about her:  she had a wealthy background as her parents collected art and owned a De Kooning, she speaks excellent French, she's well-traveled, and most importantly, she has friends in high places.  Now clearly not all speakers come to the Ath to talk about themselves, but at least they speak at length about their work, their research, their industry, or something, no?

Though Cook admitted that she chose an arbitrary title for her talk ("What is a portrait?"), her insight on what makes a good photograph was pretty unoriginal. "I felt like I revealed something of who he was,"  she said of photograph of a bookstore owner Jacob Zeiltin.  "He thought the portrait looked more like him than he did."

Maybe I'm a jaded art history major, or maybe, Cook doesn't have a whole lot to say and should stick to what she does best -- taking beautiful portraits.