Photographer Seeks to Complete the Image : Trying to Capture What Camera Can’t

<i> Robert Lachman is the chief photographer for The Times Orange County Edition</i>

Jim Cokas likes to explore the intangibles of photography. He is fascinated by things the camera can’t see: experiences that aren’t visual, whether it’s an emotion or times that are important.

As guest lecturer at the Art Forum at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana on Monday, Cokas discussed his technique, which often incorporates multiple images. But he always came back to things that can’t be photographed.

“When I took a photograph and printed it, I tended to crop off people and objects,” he said to an audience of about 30. “I wondered what was going on outside the images that I photographed. The singular image tends to make a closed statement. So I began to explore other areas of photography and tried to complete that image.”

There are two main bodies of Cokas’ work. One is a series made from muslin and silk that has been sensitized with a special emulsion that allows photographic printing on it. The pieces of cloth have been sewn, stuffed, cut up and massaged into assemblage pieces.


He used this technique to deal with things that were going on in his life at the time--the breakup of his marriage, his reaction to the Vietnam War and religious turmoil he was experiencing.

His latest work has a harder edge and relies more on construction, reflecting his design work. It is a mixture of Polaroid imagery, silver prints, Cibachrome prints and Type-C prints. It is a conglomeration of photographic images and found objects.

One of Cokas’ more unusual works, “Dancer’s Nightmare,” consists of six strips of three Polaroid SX-70 instant prints. He traces a dancer’s journey from childhood to old age using different parts of the body to show the change, following the transitions from legs that are too scrawny to dance, then become muscular, then become overweight and, finally, too old to dance.

Cokas, 35, is a full-time design instructor at Cal State Fullerton. He started at Golden West College with a more traditional single-image style and moved to Fullerton, where he became interested in what happens at the edges of a frame. He received his bachelor’s degree in art and his master’s in photography at CSUF.


“I really didn’t want to do commercial photography because I thought it would kill my fine-art work. I wanted to do something that was creative but not so close to my fine-art work that it might change the way I make images.”

When Cokas started photography in college, he said, “the more I studied photography the more I realized (that) photographs were usually about something in the real world.”

“I think my work tends to be obvious. I’ve been criticized for it in the past. I use titles that are very explanatory. I really want people to be hit with it. Generally speaking, I’m very plain and simple as to what I’m getting at. It’s not very abstract.”

Cokas has done graphic design work for the Laguna Art Museum, Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the Museum and Gallery at Cal State Long Beach. He is now working on a series of multiple-image photographs taken with a Diana camera, an older cheap-plastic camera.

“When I find two images I think should be together, I cut the negatives up and piece two of them together,” he said. “They’re like photographic diptychs. I used the Diana camera because I like the image it produces. It’s so simple in the age of auto-focus, auto-exposure, auto-everything. It’s like a pure, clean camera.

But Cokas still uses several different cameras, from a Widelux to a Polaroid SX-70 to a simple plastic camera to a standard 35-millimeter single-lens reflex.

“They all see differently. They all look at the world in a different way. As a result, they force me to look at the world in a different way.”