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REVIEW: No Man's Land: The Photography of Lynne Cohen


No Man's Land: The Photography of Lynne Cohen By Ann Thomas. Thames & Hudson, 2001. 160pp. £29.95

Since turning from sculpture to photography in 1971, the American Lynne Cohen has been recording an array of darkly humorous, chillingly surreal interiors - classrooms, laboratories, military installations, boardrooms, writes Robert Elwall .

Many could easily be mistaken for modern art installations but they are, in fact, real. More than 100 are reproduced in this handsome book.

Before Cohen's lens, the recuperative health spa takes on the sinister aspect of the pathology lab - the massage bed resembles the mortician's slab.

Classrooms seem more like places for live experimentation with the viewer as victim; rooms appear hermetically sealed; the sense of claustrophobia is all-enveloping. These images are rendered more disturbing by Cohen's concentration on synthetic materials such as Naugahyde and Formica with their cold finishes, as well as by her clinical photographic technique.

Unlike film noir , where danger lurks in the shadows and tension is increased by expressive camera angles, here the lighting is kept flat and symmetry rigidly maintained - to alienating effect.

Although it is still disquieting to see them, we somehow expect military establishments to exhibit a Strangelovean paranoia, and the dummies which crop up in Cohen's images have become an over-familiar symbol. The most worrying images are rather the most banal.

Like fellow photographer Martin Parr, Cohen has been heavily influenced by postcards and their elevation of the commonplace to the status of published record. Like Hitchcock, she is good on the terror of the ordinary, forcing us to look afresh at the workplace surroundings we take for granted. In a work milieu where space for thought has been eroded by ubiquitous communication devices and CCTV, Cohen's images of engineered environments have a powerful resonance. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the office. . .

Robert Elwall is curator of the RIBA photographs collection

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