Mariana Cook’s portrait photography seems to corroborate the old myth of the camera as a soul-stealing machine. Her eye is warmly enveloping, yet also sharp and efficient—like an emotional pickpocket, she removes crucial human essences and stores them on film. One can only imagine the deft charm she must employ to get these photographs, which are marked by gestures and gazes and oddities that the viewer immediately knows to be characteristic of their subjects. In her many books of portraiture—among them, “Coupes,” “Generations of Women,” “Mothers and Sons,” “Fathers and Daughters”—Cook presents images alongside text, distilled from interviews she conducts with the people in the photos. The interplay between the photographer’s vision of her subject and the subject’s account of herself produces a simultaneous sense of precision and of mystery: How much can we really see of a person? How much can they really see of themselves? Cook seeks, with a kind of patient force, to know as much as she can.
Cook’s recent books concentrate on people in specific fields—“Faces of Science,” “Mathematicians,” and the newly published “Justice,” which portrays human-rights activists—and how their personalities relate to their work. In her preface to “Justice,” Cook explains the questions she posed as she embarked on the project:
How do people come to feel so passionately about fairness and freedom that they will risk their livelihoods, even their lives, to pursue justice? A few years ago, I became fascinated by such people—people for whom the “rule of law” is no mere abstraction, for whom human rights is a fiercely urgent concern. I wanted to give a face to social justice by making portraits of human rights pioneers. I am a photographer. I understand by seeing. Peering through the camera lens, I hoped to gain an understanding of how they become so devoted to the rights and dignity of others.
Here are some selections from “Justice.” http://nyr.kr/10F485H