The shape of light on surfaces

Resident, photographer captures relationship of sun and shadows

The interplay between sunlight and objects that cast shadows across a surface is one of the most interesting – and fleeting – relationships a photographer can try to capture. And yet, when caught at just the right moment, the results can be stunning.
Capturing such relationships has become a passion for Secaucus-based photographer Michael Cohen, who said he is most interested in capturing “what light does when nobody is looking. I’m trying to photograph not just shadows, but also reflected light in patterns and properties of light. I’m looking for shadows that create interesting shapes as well.”


“I think it’s clearer what my subject matter is when it’s in black and white.” – Michael Cohen

In one of his photos, sunlight drapes four rectangular objects that appear to be metal newspaper stands, creating a shadow next to the boxes that looks like it could have been made by a series of smokestacks or chimneys. In another, the shape left by dim sunlight over a leaf creates a shadow that looks as if it was made by a dog or other four-legged animal.
Had these photos been taken several minutes before or after Cohen snapped them the shadows and shapes would have been completely different, and perhaps less interesting.
“That’s the sort of thing that catches my eye,” said Cohen. “Things that seem somewhat organized, when in fact they are fairly random events.”

A digital shift

A native of Atlanta, Ga., Cohen said he became a serious photographer when he was just 13 years old, when he shot only in black and white and had his own darkroom. His work was first exhibited three years later when some of his photos were included in a group show.
He went on to become a member of the Sarasota Art Association in Florida and study fine art at the University of Florida.
After starting a family and a career as a graphic artist in the advertising industry, Cohen put photography aside for a number of years to focus on his family and career.
Since returning to the medium several years ago, however, he has been fortunate enough to have work accepted for exhibition, and he has won several awards in juried shows in New York City, with the Riverdale Art Association.
He now spends much of his time shooting pieces for at least two bodies of work that he periodically shows, and would love to have published one day in book form. The first body of work he calls “Light Work” and covers his reflected light images. The second, Cohen added, is “more scenic and landscape material. Those images are geographically based on where I live. For many years I was shooting in Riverdale, and now I’m shooting in Secaucus and the Meadowlands. So now I’m starting to gather a large body of work around here.” Cohen only recently moved to the community.
Cohen said he generally exhibits limited-edition, archival pigment prints of 16” x 20” and 11”x15”.
He now shoots digitally and does color in addition to black and white. “I do have a few pieces that are in color, that happen to fall within my body of work about light,” he said. “The color was meaningful in those cases. But I have only a handful of those in my collection so far. Most of my work is still in black and white. I think it’s clearer what my subject matter is when it’s in black and white. I think it’s clear that I’m focusing on the light, and not the surface or the subject matter in the photo.”
While some photographers bemoan the transition away from film-based photography to the digital medium, Cohen said he does not feel hampered by the progression of the art form.
“I’ve gone away from film and I haven’t looked back too much,” Cohen commented. “It took me a long time to make the transition. But now, just the ease of working and getting work in front of people quickly is much easier with digital. Also, being able to print on a wider range of papers and different textures of paper, we couldn’t do that before. I’m liking digital more for that. Plus, you have more post-production flexibility. I can now shoot and then do slight alterations, if necessary, after I’ve already shot. That slight manipulation gives me greater flexibility in what I communicate and how I communicate.”
This week Cohen’s work will be shown as part of a group show at the George Segal Gallery at Montclair State University at 1 Normal Avenue in Montclair. The gallery is next to the Red Hawk parking deck. The exhibit will be on the fourth floor and runs through Feb. 19. The show is titled “Art Connections 7.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group