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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.