Collection Highlight EILEEN COWIN’S Based on a True Story
Los Angeles County Museum of Art Members Magazine
by Tim B. Wride, Assistant Curator of Photography

As a culture we have been conditioned to blindly accept as truth the adages “every picture tells a story” and “one picture is worth more than a thousand words,” statements implying that there is a narrative to be derived from any image. At the same time, we still widely accept that photographs are inherently truthful, even while their veracity is being assaulted through a greater public understanding of the potentials of digital imaging and photographic manipulation. Pairing these two seemingly opposing beliefs—photographs as a source of fiction and photographs as a source of truth—has provided fertile ground for exploring the manner in which photography can be used in the creation of narratives.

Santa Monica-based artist Eileen Cowin continues the wide-ranging traditions of narrative photography that stretch from the 19th-century moralizing montages of Henry Peach Robinson or Oscar G. Rejlander, to the reportage of Lewis Hine and the photo-essays of W. Eugene Smith and Danny Lyon, to the fictive constructions of Duane Michals. Cowin’s work is differentiated from her predecessors, however, by its distinctive contemporary psychological and cinematic sensibility, which relates it more closely to the work of Victor Burgin or Cindy Sherman.

Cowin has been working with narrative strategies for the better part of the last two decades. In work such as Based on a True Story, she exploits the viewer’s propensity to “read” images. Cowin’s six panels contain the barest of associative elements: an extended finger tracing the lips of a stone sculpture; a lone figure, shirt drenched, seated on an unmade bed; a face buried in a handkerchief; cupped hands with water leaking from them; a wrapped package; a male figure in bed. Her format recalls that of storyboards, animation cels, or comic strips—images that progress from one to another to form a narrative. Through this familiar format, she coerces the viewer to spend the associative capital necessary to arrive at meaning. Even in her selection of a title, Cowin challenges her audience to decipher the story behind the images, to add up all the elements and form the prescribed narrative—but whose narrative, the artist’s or the viewer’s?

In Based on a True Story, Cowin completely gives herself and the components of her “true story” over to a sense of mood. She has pared down her visuals to a sparse yet richly evocative elegance. The pictographic elements of the piece are encapsulated within film noir cartouches, where they function as graphic signposts to the implied “story.” They are almost calligraphic in their emotional intensity, which is heightened by their appearance within a blackness that bespeaks a place within memory or the unconscious. These enigmatic yet accessible images almost float to the surface of a tactile darkness in what seems a mocking reference to the fortune-telling magic eight ball popular with children a decade or two ago. And like the eight ball’s overly general and universally applicable answers, the images of Cowin’s piece require that the viewers contribute as much as they receive, interpreting the images according to their individual emotional and psychological states.