American photographer Marie Cosindas rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s with her experimental work, which combined painterly composition with new Polaroid technologies. Compared by Tom Wolfe to artists including Caravaggio and Gustav Klimt, Cosindas’ images were exhibited at New York’s MoMA in 1966 (a solo show which predated William Eggleston’s famous MoMA exhibition by some ten years). Until recently, however, Cosindas had fallen into relative obscurity, a situation exacerbated by her own aversion to lending works to galleries. In the past decade, this has been remedied by her inclusion in a number of exhibitions, notably 2010’s Beyond Color: Color in American Photography 1950-1970 at Bruce Silverstein Gallery.
Born in 1925 to a Greek family in Boston, Massachusetts, Cosindas grew up wanting to be a painter. After studying painting at the Boston Museum School, she took on a number of a different jobs in art and design. By the time Cosindas took up photography in the late 1950s, she had worked as an art teacher, children’s shoe designer, commercial illustrator, and as an assistant in a studio producing plaster cast reproductions of sculptures.
Cosindas’ interest in photography was piqued when she took a camera on a trip to Greece. Hoping the photographs would help her painting, she instead found herself interested in the photographs themselves. Cosindas began to take pictures regularly, using a second-hand Linhof camera and a hand-me-down lens so battered it needed to be glued together. She took lessons from the likes of Minor White and Ansel Adams, the latter of whom noted her affinity for colour over black-and-white, telling Cosindas, ‘you shoot in black-and-white, but you think in terms of colour.’
Cosindas experimented with colour photography but found conventional colour film frustrating. Unlike black-and-white, it was necessary to send colour film away for processing, meaning Cosindas was unable to control the development of the images. It was only in 1964, when she was given a sample of Polacolor film to test, that Cosindas found a method of colour photography she liked. She recalled, ‘to be able to see the results immediately was like a little miracle. I could hold an entire darkroom in the palm of my hand.’
Polacolor became Cosindas’ medium of choice for her series of ‘arrangements.’ These are carefully composed still-life scenes, overflowing with flowers, fruit, vegetables, objets d’art, and jewellery. Named ‘arrangements’ to indicate Cosindas’ role in assembling each group of objects, they evoke traditional still-life painting with their bowls of produce and heavily laden table tops.
These are nostalgic and explicitly artificial images, but for all they flirt with kitsch, they retain a muted elegance. A similar mood is evoked in Cosindas’ portraits, which sit somewhere between the elegance of John Singer Sargent and the bright colour of Matisse. In Lenore (1965), the subject poses in front of a table, her hair pinned up. The demure pose and floral details are so traditional as to be hackneyed, yet the palette of vivid blues and oranges (achieved with long exposures) and the soft, natural light, are fresh and appealing.
In addition to her ‘arrangements’, Cosindas worked as a celebrity portraitist, photographing the likes of Andy Warhol, Madame Schiaparelli, Faye Dunaway, and Yves Saint Laurent. Though out of the spotlight for many years, she has continued to work and received a lifetime-achievement award from the Photographic Resource Center of Boston University in 2013.
Marie Cosindas Portraits opens at Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York, on 17th September 2015. More information here.
Conkelton, S., ‘Cosindas, Marie’ in J. M. Marter, ed., The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art, Volume 1, Oxford, 2011.
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