Remembering The Life and Photography of Andrew Cohen

In an era of driving instead of walking and heads hung low with noses in smart phones, it was always refreshing to see Andrew Cohen traveling all over town on foot with his camera hanging around his neck. Andy walked everywhere, once recounting to me that it helped him get in shape after a terrible fall through a ceiling when he trespassed to get some desired photos in an abandoned building years ago. Walking healed his body and mind and allowed him to find beautiful scenes and objects to photograph along the way.

Andrew Roy Cohen passed away this February at the age of 67, after a valiant fight against an inoperable cancer. He ultimately processed his illness in the way that we all hope to, by receiving and profoundly experiencing the love and support of his friends, whom he saw as his family, in Montclair and beyond.

Photo: Andrew Cohen

Andrew grew up in the Inwood section of Upper Manhattan and often recalled how he was the only Jewish kid in his predominantly Italian neighborhood. He was the last living member of his family who passed away within the last few years: His younger brother, Mike, who shared his birthday, his father, Alfred, also a photographer, and his mother, Norma Hyber, a homemaker.

Friends say Andrew always thought of himself as more of a poet than a photographer and half jokingly referred to himself as a modern day shaman. He was very educated, studied at Columbia University, and was interested in Buddhism and the Native American belief system. He loved crystals and essential oils; and the clothing he wore, much of it Native American in symbolism or design, all had special meaning to him.

Photo: Andrew Cohen

When he first came to Montclair, he lived upstairs at 12 Church Street but later moved to the South End where he could always be seen photographing the beauty he found in his neighborhood.

“He was a fantastic person inside and out”, said Mahir Abdul-Hakim of Mahir’s Unisex Barbershop on Orange Road. “He was compassionate, sincere and very liberal minded. We shared many conversations about our upbringing, our faults and our attitudes toward change in this life. He was a great artist with a great eye. A true friend.”

Sofia Bachvarova, his longtime love, feels Andrew will never really be gone.

Painting of Andrew Cohen by Sofia Bachvarova
“Andrew and I had a rare artistic kinship which grew stronger over the 18 years I have known him and started with an anecdotal chance encounter at the Montclair Whole Foods fish-stand where he had a part-time gig, as many true artists do. I had a strange request – needed some fish heads to use as props in a still life painting I was working on at the time and he seemed equally delighted and amused to procure those for me.

Naturally, the conversation did not stop there. Over the years Andy and I have shared ideas, visions and walked many paths together in search of what he called, “something we have not yet the vocabulary to describe’. Such statement, coming from an artist fully immersed in his craft through photography and poetry, is as profound as a Zen koan. It takes a lifetime of minute awareness to realize it.”

Andrew Cohen’s art is that kind of art – through his vision the camera lens captured the intangible. Images became fables; perhaps as any artist worthy of their time Andrew was the storyteller who opened the doors to beauty for anyone willing to witness it in its most everyday, to see the sacred in the profane.

Bachvarova says Andrew’s last request was that she paint his portrait; she was honored to be one of the few people he would allow to “return the gaze”, referring to the fact that he was usually the one to capture others’ images and rarely vice versa.

“His was one of the most difficult portraits to create because I wanted to paint much more than a mere likeness…I guess the best way to describe it would be that I wanted to capture him as he captured the world. ”

The painting will be on view at his memorial.

Andrew left behind many muses, including model, Zara Phillips of Montclair.

Andrew Cohen and Zara Phillips.
“I had never collaborated with anyone like Andy who allowed me to feel so comfortable in front of the camera. We were always excited about the shots, the light, the costumes and could talk about the plan for the photo shoots for hours. We were both on the same page about what we wanted to give people as art. It was a unique relationship and he was my best friend in Montclair.

“Nobody came close to Andy as a photographer’, said close friend Meg Beattie Patrick. “I called him the Jimi Hendrix of photography. I met him in the early 1980s on Church Street when he asked to photograph my best friend and I. We declined, but became life long friends from that day forward.“

Patrick shared how kind and generous Andrew was with his time and talents, always offering to photograph music and fundraising events around town.

Zara Phillips (left) with Alma Schneider and Meg Beattie Patrick. Photo: Andrew Cohen

“When we did his fundraiser for cancer treatment last year, the outpouring of love from local musicians was tremendous. They wanted to give back as he had given them the gift of photographing them for years. He left such a mark on Montclair and touched so many lives with his art.”

Andy’s best friend, Joe Fortunato, remembers him as a true intellectual, a gifted photographer and a wonderful friend, recalling conversations with him from the Civil War to the Counter Culture, his favorite topics.

“We called each other brother. He was a very kind person, a true artist and he will be sorely missed.”

Andrew’s memorial will be held on Sunday, March 11th, at Trend Coffee and Tea House in Montclair at 6 p.m.

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  1. This is from Ariel Guidry:

    A Muse, Bereft – A Tribute to Andrew Cohen
    Tonight marks two weeks since the passing of my dearest friend, Andrew Cohen.
    Two weeks ago, I watched Andrew take his last breath.
    I watched and prayed as he took that last labored breath and transferred into the spirit realm, the world he communed with daily and often fought to hold at bay.

    Two weeks ago, that world welcomed him as dear brother.
    For these two weeks, I have struggled deeply to find the words that best express the sense of profound loss left behind.
    I will miss his loving, thoughtful, spirit and soul based counsel.
    I will deeply miss his fierce commitment to making every waking moment a new opportunity to create.
    I will miss his tales of artistic trespassing and his encouragement to live and experience that life beyond boundaries.
    I miss him, because out of everyone in this world, he always, without question, knew what I meant. We translated each other in ways that defied logic, and he’d yell at me if I started to explain myself, because he had already understood.
    Where I loved him in the space left when I lost my father, his nickname for me was Grandmother, in the Native American sense we both shared, for within our dynamic, our ways of relating often defied our ages.
    I will forever miss our conversations and his encompassing hugs.
    He always encouraged me to use all facets in the nurturing of my craft. To use not only the light, but to feel and express the darkness, a darkness he knew only too well. He made sure that every flaw I felt was really a gift in disguise and a precious tool to create the most exquisite art.
    Like Virgil was to Dante, he was my guide and advisor on the journey of Hell this world can sometimes be. Now he is the one walking the Underworld, not as a trespasser, but as one who is home at last.
    Upon his asking, I agreed to accompany through his own personal hell with him. It was a decision I made without second thought because it was made out of love.
    To my beloved Andrew, you made this world worth living. We had so much more to explore, but now it must wait until the next circle.- Love, a Muse Patiently Waiting
    “And just as he who, with exhausted breath,
    having escaped from sea to shore, turns back
    to watch the dangerous waters he has quit,
    so did my spirit, still a fugitive,
    turn back to look intently at the pass
    that never has let any man survive.”
    ― Dante Alighieri, Inferno

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