Native son publishes ‘treasure of a book’


Now, there is a kind of tension between an image and a word. Sometimes the explanation ruins the joke, the metaphorical picture, or the freedom of the viewer or reader to share the mix of meanings and moods. Other times, the verbal caption widens a context or invites conversation, collaboration. 

Marshall H. Cohen, a longtime resident of our nation’s capital community and a star of the National Press Club, is gifted in both contradictory camps, but labels his bright and cheerful masterpiece and memoir a “photographer’s” odyssey. 

Now here is my account of the back story of this unique publication, drawn from memory as well as a recent journey to visit my longtime friend.

Marshall grew up in Pawtucket, graduated from Brown with a major in economics, and drove from Thayer along to Hope Street and on to Main Street in Pawtucket, where he worked for his father’s and grandfather’s business, Cohen’s Furniture. En route, he would stop at Madsen’s Bakery for a Danish pastry treat, or maybe meet me for a breakfast coffee at a diner, and then mull over his future. He could draw witty sketches, charm with his quick good humor, or – as he soon discovered – capture a telling moment with a camera. 

I remember that upon his first glimpse of Washington, D.C., he felt a kind of fear of the anonymous traffic. What could he do if and when he left that familiar pathway of his youth?

Well, he put the pieces together. For him, the Danish sweetness wasn’t only in desserts, but also in its history, its literature and arts and crafts, and its economic status. So he mixed and matched and served as an attaché for our government to the land and language of his special enthusiasm. 

Along the road of his professional destiny, he met Victor Borge, the renowned Danish Jewish pianist and humorist, and sailed with him on the Danish Tall Ship Denmark on special personal assignment. He also took portraits of the Danish royals and became a star among the noble, darkly paneled chambers of our National Press Club.

In the introduction, titled “The Curtain Rises,” the author/artist claims that after his first visit, in 1959, he pledged “to return as a merchant ready to steer Cohen’s Furniture to greatness in that small, once-renowned manufacturing center ... but Denmark changed all that.” He adds, “I ordered shipments of Holmegaard glass and Kay Bojesen wooden soldiers, to decorate the windows, but sales were meager.”

He went on with his life and his search and studies and after a 1960 report in the Pawtucket Times, rose to become, in time, the official U.S. photographer during the first visit of Crown Prince Frederik, heir to the throne. 

He concludes his preface with a simple “Thank you Denmark.  Enjoy my photographic odyssey.”

Marshall has gathered and organized 150 photographs in chapters or sections that range from the Viking period through the celebration of the folklore of Hans Christian Andersen and on to reminders of the heroic rescue actions of the Danish people of all classes during World War II. As we remember with gratitude and respect, fishermen hid the Jews of Copenhagen, and also refugees from elsewhere, in the holds of their simple ships and guided them – at real danger to themselves – to neutral Sweden.

I am one of Marshall’s most loyal and devoted fans, even though his style with me is salted and peppered with mockery. That’s where he got the name “Big” on his email address, as a contrast to the “littleness” of my attachments to mere Providence! Or something like that. 

During my visit, he took me to lunch at his usual table at the National Press Club, we clinked glasses of draft beer (Danish of course), and then my excellent host and chum took me through the club’s galleries to explain how he was able to create dramatic close-ups of the world’s stars during the course of his long and varied artistic career. 

Elizabeth Taylor smiling broadly. Vice President Dick Cheney grinning warily, cautiously, ironically, hand gestures and settings contributing facets worth a conversation. It is the very same technique that Rhode Island native Gilbert Stuart used in painting George Washington and the Touro family of early Newport. You have to talk, to share words, to bring out the inner thoughts of subject and student.

This lovely and delightful book, “A Photographer’s Odyssey,” has enchanting, and also funny, things to say about Pawtucket and Providence, and those who have inspired and sustained Marshall. Those are some of my top favorite parts of the book, but I also admire Marshall’s persistence and respect for the past, present and future of his sort-of second homeland, a kind of alma mater.

We all, I believe, create, in a way, a personal and private “Shangri-La,” a country of the mind but also upon the planet, that draws us toward the sea and the prairie. For me it was at first Paris, and then Jerusalem. I left a part of myself in cafes in those places, and in my way also brought a bit of the time and space of those visited landscapes back home. 

For Marshall, it was Denmark. That mermaid is his miniature Statue of Liberty. 

I recommend his book with a reminder that since the great publishing houses prefer the guaranteed success of crowd-pleasing clichés to experimenting with fresh ideas or kindly nudges to honor other climes and other times, this book becomes our opportunity to participate in the process of encouraging genius in any form. Any time a person of talent and intelligence offers a rich glimpse into his or her lifetime quests, it is very much worth the effort to order the book online or in a bookstore. So go for it. 

MIKE FINK ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.