Longtime Playboy editor trades in the centerfolds for photos he doesn’t need to hide from the kids

jeff cohen lonely red towel cohen aDespite having served as a photo assistant, editor, and publisher at Playboy Enterprises for nearly 35 years, Jeff Cohen’s small portrait studio in Highland Park, Illinois bears but a few hints of Cohen’s former career.

There’s the Chevy couch that has traveled with him nearly every place he has had the space and now rests near the window of his storefront. And for those invited to the back, some old portraits and mementos hang in what amounts to a storage closet. Company memos signed by Hugh Hefner – all chastising Cohen for decisions he made when publishing things like Playboy’s special editions – are framed and prominently featured on the walls of a small bathroom.

Up front, the shop, located in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, is almost entirely focused on Cohen’s newest venture, Jeff Cohen Creative, which he launched in January. The windows are decorated by clotheslines that hold his portrait work with the help of clothespins, and an inside wall is dedicated to prints of Cohen’s personal favorites. The rear of the room features backdrops and lighting, and the only thing breaking the flow of the portraits up front – other than the couch – are a few large prints of Cohen’s favorite fine art photos, things like his famous Lonely Red Towel and one he calls Sky Diver.

There is little evidence of his life at Playboy, in part, because of a nearby school, which often sends children past his storefront. But it is also because Cohen has a clear focus on what he wants his business to be, and it is evident in his shots, which range from solo portraits framed off-center to couples who look like they’re truly having a good time together, to a man sharing a moment with his beloved pug, to a friendly Filipino mailman who posed for his first photo in 56 years at Cohen’s request.

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“I’m not shooting weddings; I’m not shooting bar mitzvahs,” Cohen said. “I pick and choose. The reason I have all this up – this is what I do. If you want a straight, formal business portrait, there’s a guy down the street that will do that.”

And the art to Cohen’s work is as much about his interactions with his subjects as it is about his skill with a camera.

“I like to bring them out of their comfort zone,” Cohen said. “They come into my space and the experience of being photographed. I like them to come in and look at my pictures. Sit down and look at the couch. No pressure. Just come in and hang out. And I think sometimes it throws people off, which is OK.

“I think I’m part shrink. I like talking. I like putting them at ease. I like the challenge. It’s something I want to do. I like doing it. I think I’m good at it.”

The studio, in several ways, also brings Cohen’s career full circle.

Landing an ‘unbelievable’ job at Playboy

Cohen grew up in nearby Wilmette and attended New Trier Township High School, before going to Syracuse University in New York to study advertising. He intended to be a copywriter, but his plans changed almost immediately after he graduated, when he made a decision that indirectly led him to photography.

“I had a job offer right away,” he explained. “I graduated on a Saturday. They wanted me to come to work on a Monday. I said, ‘What the fuck? I’ve been going to school. I’m probably going to work many years. I’d like more than a day off.’ So I turned down the job and I traveled. A buddy of mine from New York came and picked me up in Wilmette, and we headed west and bummed around the country for five weeks. At that point, I picked up a camera. I really hadn’t done any shooting. I got into it at that point.”

After that, he came back to Chicago and took a job as as photo assistant, and just a few months later in the fall of 1967 he saw a posting for a photo assistant at Playboy’s Chicago headquarters. He wasted no time applying.

“Somewhere along the line there still is…a demand for holding something tactile, glossy, slick, that you can actually thumb through in your hands…”

 “I put together a little portfolio of pictures. I had a tie on. I had a little goatee. I was 22, and I went to the 11th floor, which is where the photo department was. I remember this like it was yesterday. I remember getting off the elevator, and you’re in the lobby, and there’s these huge dye-transfer prints of these covers and beautiful women. And I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ And I turned around to get back on the elevator and leave, and the elevator doors close, and this – at that point, every receptionist on every floor was a Playmate or at least a model – stunning young woman says to me, ‘Can I help you?’ OK. I guess I’m here.

Cohen’s meeting with Vince Tajiri, the original photo editor for Playboy who Cohen describes as a “wonderful, very interesting man,” was scripted more like an episode of Mad Men than a job interview – this was the “glamorous” 1960s, after all. “He had a love of Jack Daniels. I’ll never forget: This was late afternoon, 4 p.m., maybe later, that I had the appointment with him. And I went into his office. We sat down. [He] didn’t even look at my portfolio. We just started talking. ‘You want a drink?’ And we just started drinking. We hit it off. It was one of those things. I was at the right place at the right time. ‘You want to start?’ ‘Yep.’ ‘How’s Monday?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ And off I went.

“Of course, everyone had found out Cohen landed this unbelievable job at Playboy. It was pretty heady back then; there’s no question. I wasn’t making dickshit money, but who cares? That doesn’t matter. I learned an enormous amount.”

He assisted eight photographers, including Stan Malinowski, and tried to learn as much as he could about the process and their styles. If he didn’t know something during a shoot, he would spend late nights learning it. And with the magazine’s then more diverse offerings as a men’s lifestyle magazine than nudie mag, he was heavily involved in everything from product shots to fashion to food, all at the ripe age of 23.

“It was fascinating and exhausting,” he recalled. “Many nights I never made it home. There was a shower in the studio, and I’d crash on a piece of furniture. Get up, take a shower and be ready to go. But, hey, it was great. It was wild.

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“And I was fortunate to be there at the right time. This is when each successive issue of the magazine would sell more than the previous issue. This is when Hef had the jet ‘Big Bunny.’ It just indicated that the success of the company was booming at the time. We were opening clubs everywhere, and I was traveling, assisting and doing some shooting at all these clubs around the country, going to Europe. There was no such thing as a budget; you just go off and if it doesn’t work [oh well]. No budgets! It was golden. Playboy was on top.”

And Playboy saw something in his creativity and managerial style. Needing a strong editor more than another photographer, the company promoted Cohen to editor. But after three-and-a-half years at the magazine, he quit.

Westward bound, a photographer emerges

“I just got frustrated, so I decided to take a leave of absence and I headed to California, because I had some friends out there, to see if I could become a shooter,” Cohen explained. “The reception I got was very good. I called my boss in Chicago and said, ‘I’m going to extend my leave of absence – I quit,’ and opened up a studio in San Francisco and then got business in L.A., so I opened a small studio down there and commuted between the two cities.”

He also gained more valuable experience, working with photographers likes of Annie Leibovitz, from whom he learned a particular lesson he carries with him to this day when shooting his portraits.

“This is when she was still in San Francisco, working with Rolling Stone,” Cohen said. “She had to shoot Boz Scaggs for the cover. So she calls me up one afternoon. ‘I’m shooting a cover for Rolling Stone. Can I use your studio?’ So she comes over – no camera. ‘What do ya got?’ ‘What do you want? I’ve got Nikons. Hasselblad.’ ‘Give me a Nikon. Do you have a normal lens?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Just throw a normal lens on.’ And then magic happened.

“I assisted her. She was able to deal with him in such a way. This is before Annie Leibovitz was Annie Leibovitz. It was clear, even then, that she was able to take him out of whatever environment he was in and direct him and move him. She could have been a painter, a sculptor; it just so happened she was a photographer. This was the medium that she uses. That really taught me a lot. Basically, it really doesn’t matter if I’m using the Canon 5D or my little Canon Sureshot. As Ansel Adams said, it’s the 12 inches behind the camera that’s the most important part. But I’ll just never forget the way she handled that. And she got a cover.”

But after eight years working as a freelance photographer, he decided to move back closer to his aging parents. Playboy had always left the door open for a return, and he took the company up on the offer, becoming a full-time editor and working with the likes of George Hurrell, Victor Skrebneski, and Arnold Newman. As the years went, he rose to the top, becoming the executive editor and publisher in 1997 before retiring in 2010.

“It was a great career,” he said. “As much as I’m excited about being my own boss here and doing this, and this seems to be working, and maybe I could have done it 10 or 15 years ago when I was younger, I have no complaints about the years I spent at Playboy.”

During his tenure at Playboy, he also met his wife of 35 years and counting. She was working there as a photo stylist and makeup artist, and Cohen credits her familiarity with the business environment of Playboy as something that helped their marriage last and raise three now-grown children.

“She trusted me, and rightfully so,” Cohen said. “There’s a lot who started working at Playboy and couldn’t keep it in their pants, and they were gone. Hef had no tolerance for it. The legal department certainly had no tolerance for it. And then when (our) kids came along, I think she would be the first to — if she took me to task — wish I had been home more. The hours were long, a lot of travel. But she’s held up.

“When we meet people for the first time, and they learn a little bit about my history, the conversation quickly shifts to, ‘Let’s talk to your wife about that and everything that she went through.’ But she was cool. Obviously, it helped that she had worked there, so she knows what it’s about. I think most, if not all of the truly successful marriages at Playboy, especially those who were in the creative or glamour side, were those that were marriages between two who were part of the same department. Even if somebody in the photo department marries someone in accounting, at least they had a rough idea that it’s a business. It’s a little bit more exciting, a little bit more fun than selling insurance, but it’s still a business.”

Old-school at heart, eyes on the future

Cohen, who’s now 68, shoots most of his portraits in black and white, and it is indicative of his old-school mentality. He is someone who comes from the age of print, and long before he ever picked up a camera, he was fascinated by the printed image.

“I’ve always been fascinated with pictures,” he said. “I was a fairly anal kid, and I used to go and look at LIFE and Collier’s and all these magazines that don’t exist anymore. I was fascinated. I would clip and keep folders on landscape and keep folders on people and keep folders on sports and animals and just study them.”

But Cohen has accepted the dawning of the digital age, in many ways. His style may be old-world, but he shoots digitally with a Canon 5D Mark III – though he is hoping to one day get a digital Hasselblad. He is improving his skills with Photoshop, but discourages his clients from too much retouching. And while he has visions of a future of on-demand magazine printing and jokes about swapping out his clothesline photos for tablets, he has created a Facebook page mostly out of necessity and is still debating about whether or not he wants to get involved with Twitter. And at the end of the day, part of what he is selling is a service, and the other part is something he considers very important – the printed photograph.

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“Somewhere along the line there still is, and I think there still will be, a demand for holding something tactile, glossy, slick, that you can actually thumb through in your hands,” he said. “This presentation of my pictures – everyone reacts to it positively – the clothespins and the clotheslines. They love the fact that I’m just doing this with a clothespin. They love the fact that I’m changing things. I try to change at least one or two pictures every week. Just pop them and move them around. People are reacting to it, maybe because it’s different. I hope that this doesn’t go away.”

Cohen’s job is one of few left that still requires a very personal touch, something one-on-one that goes well beyond today’s predominantly digital connections. And in many ways, it is only through those personal interactions that Cohen’s portraits are so successful.

“I think I’m able to get an openness of the people,” he said, recounting a recent shoot during which he showed a man how to properly hug his wife, which drew laughs from the clients and put them more at ease. “I’m not opposed, at all, to throwing myself in. I’m comfortable doing it. Everybody who walks by here relates to these pictures because of the attitude and openness I seem to be getting out of my subjects here. I enjoy that.”

And at this point in his career, Cohen is creating work with the simple goals of making himself and his clients happy. He doesn’t set hard times on shoots, but rather works with each particular client until everyone is happy with the results, whether that takes one hour or three.

“Just keep shooting, having fun – that’s what it’s about,” he said.

And with that “fun” in mind, Cohen isn’t opposed to putting a frosty acetate on the windows, building a set, and still doing the occasional glamour shoot – a parlance that includes “tasteful” nudes and lingerie – upon request.

“I had a young lady who saw my work online, saw that I was with Playboy, and she and her boyfriend came up from southern Indiana a week ago,” he said. “They booked me for the day for glamour stuff. She said, ‘I don’t want it published; I just want it for me. I want to be able to look back when I’m 80 and look at these pictures.’ And I said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and she was thrilled. Now she wants to bring up her sister, and she’s got other girlfriends that are doing it. I’ll do that.

“Let me think – do I want to shoot girls? Yeah, I’ll do that.”

(Copyright gallery images via Jeff Cohen)

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