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The Chair that Shaped a Nation

By Shelah Shivers


Photo courtesy of the UAlbany Art Museum

On the top floor of University at Albany’s art museum, the cold and chilling image of Roy Cohn graces the wall. There I stand, 5 feet and 3 inches tall, looking directly at the image in front of me but still below the man captured so deftly.


Photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark has used her work to bridge people together for over four decades. Her ability to capture the essence of her subjects in a single shot is what makes her work so powerful. Mark uses principles and elements of art to contextualize her subjects. She uses a “bug’s eye” view, an angle used to create height and elegance. This angle is normally used for buildings, not people, making him an imposing figure.


This view Marks used displayed his truth. Marks didn’t capture him at eye level because this man only saw eye to eye with himself. He possesses the qualities of a building and he was as elegant as a rock. The height he was positioned at was how he viewed himself-- Roy Cohn thought he was above everyone.


The framing of the image was done to familiarize the viewer and subject. Cohn centers the entire image which puts emphasis on him as a subject and what kind of man he was-- a bigot and a nationalist, the center of attention displayed as high and mighty. Even if you didn’t know the identity of this man, you can still see he is a prominent figure.


Victor A. Kovner, a lawyer who has known Cohn for years, said, “You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil.” This is what Mark captured—a flagitious symbol of hierarchy. Cohn was known as homophobic but was also homosexual himself. Here, on the wall before me, sat a man with no principles or moral values. Cohn was an unethical contender in the national Republican politics.


The democratic freedoms of the American people have been disregarded for decades, in the name of protecting them by figures in power. Roy Cohn was the chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy, and mentor and personal lawyer of President Donald Trump. Cohn was disbarred for dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation. Cohn’s swagger, precipitous opportunism, and serial fabrication is what molded Trump.


President Trump was acquitted on two articles of impeachment, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The Senate has endorsed Trump’s use of intuitional power for personal political ends. Trump once asked Cohn what he should do when the government filed a suit against his company for discriminating against black people. Cohn responded, “Fight the thing in court and let them prove you discriminated.” The evidence was incriminating. Trump agreed to caveats to prevent future discrimination at his properties and walked away scot-free. Cohn is the mastermind behind the Trump strategy that has become so influential today. Trump has brought up the same case that has happened decades ago in Presidential debates. Cohn and Trump are both symbols of power-- the throne-like chair in the image symbolizes a seat most aren’t privy to. A seat of power and privilege.


His posture is almost statuesque and the positioning of the flag is displayed almost how it is on a wall. He sits in a chair that resembles a throne. He resembles an enforcer, not for the American people but himself. Roy Cohn is known to be a man of no principles, this only furthered through his expression. The snark of his smile could send chills through a snowman. The image is rigid and it’s not only because it’s still life. The way Cohn is centered, with his legs crossed and arms crossed makes him look as rigid as a rock, like a man who is incapable of change and is stuck in his own ways.


Mary Ellen Mark is known to explore race, gender, sexuality and violence in her work. She depicted all of this through one photograph. A white, heterosexual, American male dying of AIDs is being shown, but you won’t know that from looking at the image. Mark showed us who he really was not through words, but imagery.