Who needs drugs when you have images like these?
The 1960s were one of the most visual eras of our time. For instance, who doesn't remember the hypnotic lava lamps, the buses with rainbows and flowers painted on them, the hippie fashion with peace-and-love signs, and the music of the The Beatles? The imagery that made this era iconic was a product in part of the hallucinating drugs that inspired the psychedelic art movement. Psychedelic art is hard to understand, but irresistible to look at. It arose from the visions of artists who would consume drugs like LSD and psiclocybin, among others. According to the psychologist who came up with the term "psychedelic," it means "mind manifestation." In other words, there are no limits or boundaries to what the mind can picture, interpret, or visualize through this art. You probably would understand it better if you were to picture a scene from a television show or movie where characters get high by taking pills, mushrooms, or smoking a joint, distorting reality with splashes of color, mirrored images, hollow voices, and random elements that don’t always make sense. These hallucinations are the inspiration behind the visual movement, a style we still mimic today, and an artist who captured its essence is Ira Cohen and his Mylar Chamber photography series.
Cohen was a photographer, filmmaker, and poet who enjoyed smoking marijuana and wished for other artists to see the inspiring images that resulted from using the drug. His art consisted of photographing reflections with a polyester film surface, a technique known as mylar that gave the illusion of distorted figures and mirrored shapes. At his loft in New York City, he had the opportunity to photograph many artists including John McLaughlin, William Burroughs, Angus Maclise, and Jimi Hendrix, who once complimented his work by saying, “Looking at your pictures is like looking through butterfly wings."
When I look at his images, I think about the emotions and desires captured in his work. There is an undeniable unique vision portrayed in the images, a hidden message to be deciphered, like the one where he captures his muse and wife Jhil McEntyre and a reflection on her back forms another individual. His pictures puzzle the mind and make the viewer question reality. Other photographs tell an entire story with one image. Cohen focuses a lot on the characterization of his models, as if he were trying to bring his photographs to life.
We can also see his fascination with extravagant and colorful figures in the body paint work used to characterize his models. Since he was a filmmaker as well, I assume he used his special effects, lighting, and prop-making techniques to make the backgrounds. The fabrics, accessories, and models' postures are almost theatrical. It's as if he tried to to turn his hallucinations into a play or a movie. What I see in his images is a reality that comes from another universe. My favorite picture is the one with the blue faces fading away; it makes me think of an evil villain in a comic book.
By the looks of the models, we can assume that Cohen's technique is probably a mix of different styles that he picked up along the way. He traveled around the world to many different places, borrowing ideas from different cultures that can be spotted on his work. For example, there is one photograph that he titled William Burroughs and his Gilded Cobra. In this image, there are noticeable European elements in the model’s costume, and some Middle Eastern accessories, including a cobra.
In 2008, NY Arts magazine called Cohen’s work “a sort of white magic produced by an alchemist who turned his back on the establishment in order to find God, art and poetry.” Cohen died in 2011, but he left behind a legacy that has inspired others to look into the psychedelic art movement of the 1960s. In his heyday, he showed his work in exhibitions around the world and did some poetry readings as well. His photographs are a reflection of the spirit of the 1960s and a great example of the things artists have created under the influence of drugs.
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