Chennai is a photographer’s delight, says Paul Cohn whose visit to the city has led him to some serendipitous discoveries. We zoom in on his work that will be on display from June 5

Paul Cohn sees art where the average Chennaite sees peeling posters and flaking paint. “I was working on a photo exhibition, and one of the shots I took, on T.T.K road, was a colourful wall with one eye (from a torn poster). It reminded me of a Dali painting, and I thought I should find more things like that.” And so, he started looking around, and found walls layered with colour, and smothered with posters. “I loved it!” he says. “It is very easy to ignore it and focus on the road. But if you stop and look, with a little imagination, it can be amazing!”

Cohn took to photography only in 2007, but he’s always been interested in the arts. “I wanted to paint, but I’m a terrible painter,” he laughs. In 2010, his wife’s job (as Foreign Service Officer, with the U.S Consulate) bought the couple to Chennai, and Cohn photographed events for the U.S. Consulate, and also conducted photography workshops for children in Dharmapuri and Salem. The walls of Chennai, however, are his favourite subjects.

Journeys of discovery

Elaborating on his work and serendipitous discoveries, Cohn tells me of an incident in Triplicane. “I was standing in front of a green wall, and I saw something in there. I took the picture and went home, and changed the exposure — the colours just burst out!” And thanks to walking around the backstreets of busy Chennai, Cohn probably knows more about the city than the average resident. During the course of the hour, he tells me that Sowcarpet and Triplicane are more representative of Chennai, than the chic residential areas, and shares with sincere enthusiasm his experiences at a Mariamman festival and another where people walked on a bed of hot coals. “It was hot and crowded, and the light was very peculiar,” he says, and for someone from the U.S., it was “an intense experience”.

But there’s so much to see in the city, besides the temples and festivals, Cohn says. “In New York city, if you walk down any major street, it’s all big, new glass buildings. They are so featureless, whereas here, the walls are covered in political posters or advertisements.” And that visual detail, he says, is part of the charm of the city, except, every time he trains his lens on subjects that locals take for granted, he’s often asked “what do you see in that?” To Cohn, however, it is beautiful, and the “most ordinary subject, can be magnificent, if it is done well”.

Even when he’s unable to make a beautiful picture out of it, it is still real history, when two different political campaigns take place on the same wall. “It is fascinating!” he says, adding that India is a great place to have a camera. Chennai, particularly, has been interesting to capture, and besides his abstracts, he has photographed details about the city (a tree with turmeric and kumkum spots, a wishing tree with cradles hung on it) as if to say, “look at this, you might have missed it”.

Overwhelming response

And while that was the focus of his previous exhibition, he wasn’t initially sure if people would “get” his abstracts. But the response — at a private showing, earlier this year — was overwhelming. For the current show, Cohn has reprinted the abstracts in a larger size (roughly between three and four feet), so that the impact is greater. “There’s one blue wall in Parry’s Corner, and it has a piece of a poster that advertises a sex clinic. The colours and shapes make it a very interesting piece, and it was very popular.” It appealed particularly to the expats, as they have seen these posters everywhere, and it made for a nice souvenir to take back, from Chennai.

Cohn himself is soon moving back to the U.S. And while he’s happy to go home, there’s nothing there (like Chennai) to take pictures of, he rues.

(Canvasses will open on June 5 at the Prakrit Arts Gallery, R.A. Puram)