Photographer Mark Cohen and the Birth of Invasive Street Photography

Many photographers get nervous when the talk turns to street photography. There are step-by-step plans laid out for those who want to get over their fear of street photography, and entire articles dedicated to using telephoto lenses when taking candid street shots so you’re less likely to invade someone’s personal space even as you’re photographing it.

But on the other side of this spectrum are photographers like Bruce Gilden and Eric Kim, who make no apologies about getting in their subjects’ faces and practicing what might be called “invasive street photography.” And if you’ve ever wondered where this cringe-worthy technique was invented, you need look no further than the above video of photographer Mark Cohen.


Cohen is credited by many with innovating the method of street photography practiced by Gilden and his students that involves holding a camera in one hand and a flash in another. They get right inside the personal space of anyone and everyone they find interesting and photograph them from far inside their “bubble.”

The tactic is controversial, and has even been called “bullying” by other great names in street photography. Wherever you stand on the topic of invasive street photography, however, it’s interesting to see its genesis. In today’s day and age, where photography is much more prevalent and privacy is taken extremely seriously, do you think Cohen could have gotten away with some of the photos he takes in the above video? Let us know what you think.

(via Reddit)

  • Aaron Tsuru

    I’ve shot street photography and have been shot by street photographers, none of that bothers me, since it’s all in a public places and what not.

    As for Gilden and Cohen, I’m torn. On one hand, I love the photos! On the other, someone shoving a flash in your face is nearly an assault and would probably piss me off.

    But, in the end, since it’s not assault and you are in public, just enjoy the work!

  • James Conner

    It’s the functional equivalent of breaking and entering. And, it’s the photographer as jackass, not artist.

  • ISO640

    I have a couple of Cohen’s photo books. I like the effect flash has on his photos but I think the whole invasive street photography genre is a bit more dangerous in this day and age. For some reason people, particularly in America, seem to have the attitude that taking their photo is like a mugging even if you aren’t being invasive.

  • Steven

    Why does it matter? I find sniping someone with a telephoto lens more creepy than going up close with a flash. At least if you’re closer, your subject is more aware of what’s happening. I use flash once in awhile and find that most people smile or don’t care. The ones that do stop me and I get to talk about what I do. I’ve only had an argument with one lady so far.. Not bad.

  • Mansgame

    This is absolutely disgusting. Guys like this give the rest of us a bad name and end up changing the laws to where we’re banned from more and more places. If I was walking on the street and he did this and the guy he photographed took a swing at him, I would keep on walking as if I saw nothing. He deserves it.

  • MD

    Why must the choice be either the telephoto approach, or the Cohen approach? There’s plenty in the middle. These are the extreme ends of the spectrum and both are creepy, disrespectful ways of photographing people. Compared to Cohen and Gilden, even Eric Kim seems reserved. The average person’s “personal bubble” is fairly small. It’s not difficult to stay at a distance the subject would be comfortable with, so why invade it so aggressively?

    I think a lot of people give these photographers too much benefit of the doubt, that perhaps they have a different set of social standards or are just “free and easy kinds of guys.” I don’t know any of them so I certainly can’t comment specifically, but something tells me that if they were treated the way they treat their subjects, they would have a conniption. A lot of people carry a different set of behavioral standards for themselves than for everyone else.

    Then again, I might be biased because I think most of these photographers’ work is terrible. If their pictures interested me, I might find the technique a little easier to swallow. For someone who is so much better behaved, I find Meyerowitz’s work to be vastly more enjoyable.

  • photoguy

    There is no strategy or thought in Mr. Cohens photography. I can give my 6 year old a point and shoot camera and get the same results….chopped up photos, parts of legs,arms, partial body parts etc.

  • frank mckenna

    I always say your photos reveal your personality and this guy’s photos show how much of a jerk he is.

  • Aaron Tsuru

    If you watched the video, you’d know that’s not true.

  • Joe Harrington

    I currently shoot street photography in Boston. For me, being in a persons face produces a better image, I think it is a personal feeling. Some days I wait for people to pass and get as close as possible. Other days I hang out at Haymarket, find people who are preoccupied shopping and catch them when they turn and look at me. I have had a few confrontations, nothing physical besides one guy grabbing my wrist, and another raising his fist over my head. Couple of people have thrown some profanity my way. This article just makes me want to get out there and get in close…

  • Richard Dukeshire

    Seeing him creep up on women and shoot at their legs/ skirts without consent like that was kind of creepy on his part! I’d love to see people invade his space and flash in his face to see how fond he was of the idea.

  • Eugene Chok

    invasion of my fist into your face, then i acquire a new Leica WIN

  • Alex.G.

    This not only promotes bad manners, but it is very very rude. Just cause you’re in a public place that shouldn’t give you the right to take pictures of me without my permission. & nowadays it does give a bad name to photographers, and is associating all of us with paparazzi’s. Then on the flip side, why should you make money off of me without paying “me”, your subject? assuming you are going to sell that “art work”! Its extortion is what it is…I don’t want to be photographed, why should you photograph me against my will?

  • Mantis

    That’s assault & robbery.
    Then you acquire a wider, looser, sphincter in prison.

  • Opie

    Yeah, having people swear and brandish their limbs at me has always been a sure sign I’m doing something right…

    Where do people get this lack of regard for other people’s comfort? How did you feel when the man grabbed your wrist? Did you immediately cry foul because he entered your personal space? These pedantic “I’m not touching you!” games are no less childish than when they’re played between siblings in the back seat.

    Street photography is, even at its best, “just” art. We’re allowed to suffer for our art, but you don’t get to make others do so. Living in a city is taxing enough as it is…making someone else uncomfortable because YOU might gain something from it is a plainly selfish act, and it only makes urban life harder for the rest of us.

  • Orlando 林安徒生 Andersson

    u’d be arrested for that ^^

  • Mantis

    Here’s a street photography tip that i’ve used to great success:

    Shoot in B&W + RAW.

    Your LCD will show a black & white image when you view it.

    If somebody gives you a hard time about taking their photo, offer to show them the photo. B&W looks a lot more “artsy” and “street” than a color photo does, and your subject will usually get a better idea of what your intentions are.

    Carry a business card with a B&W image and your web address too. Let them know you’re not some random creep.

  • Orlando 林安徒生 Andersson

    well, why do u care? I wouldnt mind if someone were to have photographed me…. u just care too much do ye, laddy? My best advice for u is to stay off the streets, and get urself locked up at home ^^
    well it’s a public place, and the law says it’s allowed

  • Stanco55

    I’ve witnessed my fair share of invasive, insensitive photographic jerks
    (and in more ways than this, for that matter). And I’d probably lump
    Mr. Cohen into said category- if I hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing his
    work. And there lies the conundrum, at least this guy produced
    innovative work that is still being copied (mostly badly) today (by those
    aforementioned jerks). Not to mention that he is willing to put his
    physical well being on the line, has been brought into police precincts,
    etc. Guys like Gilden and Cohen deserve some slack because of the quality of their end product. In other words, FWIW, I think you have the right attitude, Aaron

    BTW- Mr. Cohen practiced and perfected his art in his hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania- he’s not a NYC photographer (a little research, please).

  • Joe Harrington

    The man who grabbed my wrist was upset at me taking his pic due to his son ripping off a lady, or allegedly ripping off a lady at the farmer’s market, he was in her face screaming. He saw me and instantly reacted. The person who held his fist over my head did not speak English, and that was how he communicated with me. I do not get upset at these people. Everyone has a different reaction. I did get upset at the cop who got in my face and told me to move away with my camera when I was shooting a man who had fallen down, now that was a violation of my rights.

  • Opie

    This is exactly the problem. These photographers know how to push things just far enough to be a complete nuisance and upset people, but not far enough to actually break laws. The fact that they DESERVE some sort of retaliation doesn’t mean anyone has the legal bearing to deliver it. They stand at the edge legality and decency, and leave it up to others to make a mistake.

    These photographers are not uncovering war criminals in Cambodia or giving a voice to those affected by atrocity. They’re just being jackasses and making the world a less pleasant place to live. In short, pretty unimpressive people

  • Aaron Tsuru

    Yep! Since art & quality are in the eye of the beholder and the intentions of the artist, who are we to judge what is good and bad quality, right?

    So, I say let them do their thing. It’s a risk one takes being out in public that someone may be watching/capturing you and a risk the photographer takes that someone won’t destroy their $10,000 Leica and punch them in the nose.

    It all works out in the end.

  • Alex.G.

    “It’s the functional equivalent of breaking and entering. And, it’s the photographer as jackass, not artist.”

    Yes, exactly. This is not art, this guy is a pervert.

  • Opie

    Funny, I looked at your Flickr and my first instinct was to comment on how unimpressive it was to photograph that fallen man. Something tells me we’re going to have to agree to disagree.

    I’m glad you get to escape the hustle-bustle of the city and go back to your quiet, privacy-rich existence in Melrose, but some of us actually live in the city and have to deal with that kind of behavior 24/7. Thanks for making our home a little worse before you leave.

  • Opie

    Yeah, but people don’t do that. The obnoxious always prosper because everyone else is too polite to do anything. This idea that martial law will prevail is flawed because the only people indecent enough to stoop to such levels are the ones making the initial transgressions.

    And if someone DID destroy their $10,000 Leica, I’m pretty sure they’d just have the person arrested and they’d still get the last laugh.

  • Adam Cross

    Eric Kim is terrible whereas Gilden and Cohen are just legends, plain and simple.

  • Stanco55

    Martial law??? Not sure how that comes into the conversation. But Mr. Cohen has had his trials and tribulations with both the the public and the police so, in effect, he does pay the price for his actions, and his art.

    I hear a lot of assumptions being made here, a lot of them understandably by people who can’t make work approaching his quality (few of us can- no matter how talented your children), and by those who are not even familiar with his work.

    If you’re gonna stand in judgement of artists by their personalities and how they treat(ed) people in life- hey, it’s your party, but it’s gonna be a pretty lonely one…

  • Zos Xavius

    I’m going to come out and say that these pictures are terrible. No sense of composition, just badly executed snapshots. This guy is a legend? Really? Color me unimpressed. Vivian Meier showed the world how street photography should be done. Her pictures are beautifully composed and not all that intrusive to her subjects. Of course shooting with a TLR and a waist level viewfinder were part of that success. This guy comes off as a real creep if you ask me.

  • Aaron Tsuru

    Like I said, it’s a risk for both, the subject and the artist. He may get the last laugh, but personally, losing a beloved camera and getting my nose broke is the crappiest way to laugh at someone.

    Everyone has the potential to prosper. Talented, obnoxious, untalented but popular, whatever. That’s photography, that’s art, that’s life.

    In the end, it may be rude or obnoxious, but it’s not illegal.

  • Theranthrope

    Gah, I hate seeing this kind of thing; this is photography that makes people hate photographers.

  • Joe Harrington

    C’mon Opie lighten up! How many people in Boston have actually taken your photo? You act as if the streets are crawling with street photographers.

  • johneve

    I’d love to see photographer meets badass, badass wins. Camera smashed and photographer’s space invaded in the same rude manner. This is not art, not even remotely interesting, this is just a case of… because i can. Someone should slap this guy in the face and tell him to get a job. Sometimes there is just too much tolerance in the world. Your freedom ends where my freedom starts. But of course it is easier to call something art than to question it’s merits at the risk of being perceived as one who does not understand.

  • grosvenor

    I carry pepper spray for situations where I feel threatened. In-your-face street photographers be warned; if you get into my face, my pepper spray will get into yours. Just saying :)

  • Stanco55

    Yeah, and let’s slap the crap outta these too tolerant types too! Let’s wake ‘em all up outta their sleep so they can slap the non tolerant types. That way everyone will respect each other and make better art!

  • David

    How so Aaron, because there is a scene where he intellectualizes about the the lucky haphazard results compositionally in the leg photo? Sorry, there just isn’t enough intention in his works for my taste. Yes, he hit an interesting composition from time to time. But startling people close-up with a flash in their face does not capture the real world. It captures manufactured moments that only speak to the photographer’s own ego. This is more performance art than street photography.

  • Aaron Tsuru

    I’m not really sure what you are expecting. It’s street photography and meant to capture non-posed moments. There is strategy & thought, but he can’t fart around with it for an hour. See woman walking, quickly think how you want to shoot her, position, not just your body, but the camera and flash, and click. He got what he wanted and then some!

    I would think with street photography, it’s the spontaneous quick-thinking & acting that is part of the joy. The other part would be some of the surprises you get when you review your shots.

    I personally really like the leg shot. I love the hard lines and shadows he got. Smart camera & flash positions got it which he absolutely planned.

    Not bad!

  • Aaron Tsuru

    also, to you comment “The obnoxious always prosper because everyone else is too polite to do anything.”

    Go check out Humans Of New York.

  • Gman

    I’m not a massive fan of Eric, but at least he thanks his subjects after he takes their photo rather than skulking off quickly to avoid confrontation.

  • Hamm

    I suppose you would rather people took sneaky shots from distance, or worse: hipshots? Yeah , that’d really reduce the creepy…

    At least give the subject the decency of knowing you’re taking pictures.

    Also, I’d suggest anyone who thinks Gilden’s a pussy trying to avoid confrontation says that to his face…

  • Roman

    I wish to see him do it in Poland. He would lose his teeth and the camera :D
    But in US generally people don’t care so much about the privacy or personal space.

  • CoffeeGeeker

    Tell you what I’m expecting instead: brilliant street work like that by Vivian Maier, as an example, who was able, for decades to capture such amazing, visually descriptive imagery that ran the gamut from abstract to harsh reality, all without being a in your face bully like these guys.

    As a photographer, this kind of work repulses me.

  • Paul Donohoe

    These are NOT genuine street photographers. They are not even practising any kind of photographic genre. It was and is a gimmick. Just think these people are “famous” and so many people follow them. It’s assault and precisely why some people are beginning to object to street photography. None of it’s necessary and please don’t be ridiculous and tell us that anything they produce is of value if they carry on like this. It’s not about the people they photograph, it is NOT recording a real moment in time or lives. It’s just bullying as it says in the post.

  • Paul Donohoe

    fools like this make it hard for real photographers People do object and will continue to if they are treated this way. It is assault however you look at it. We can call anything art though as you say lol and in the real world if someone pokes a flash in your face you can 1) have an epileptic fit 2)have a heart attack 3)laugh 4) punch them in the face. all in the name of art LOL

  • Paul Donohoe

    Try taking your camera and flash and put it to someone’s face and fire. you will produce work of this “qaulity” without a doubt There is nothing in this work that approaches quality. Nothing real is “art” true as it’s created but so is a lot of things lol

  • Paul Donohoe

    I mean ARE a lot things haha

  • Paul Donohoe

    It could be actually..not the photography in public side of it but the being so close firing a flash close etc could be construed as assault. Flash at close range can be dangerous, triggering fits in some and just shock in others. They do it to me I will grab them and call or the police. No question AND I am a street photographer

  • Paul Donohoe

    A voice of reason. They are not artists. No planning, no vision, just bang in your face. Anyone can do this if they are “brave” enough” but it is assault. Can’t get why more people don’t see it

  • Paul Donohoe

    well this IS mugging. I don’t mug people and NEVER (well maybe four or five times in five years lol) had people get mad at me. Just yesterday I had people THANK me for taking their photos in the street when they noticed me

  • Paul Donohoe

    more creepy? hardly. It MATTERS because the person being photographed has rights. flash in the face can be dangerous even deadly (mostly not thank goodness) and it is assault whatever anyone says or rather it could be construed..and why is a long lens creepy? Most people who see me with mine don’t object. and in fact have thanked me or at least smiled if they notice me

  • Paul Donohoe

    Yes!! I’ve been saying the same things for ages. It seems it’s all about the photographers’ “rights” and not at all about the people being photographed. I treat them with respect and they are almost always nice if they see me with only four or five objecting in five years. Thank goodness for common sense