Michaele Cozzi’s photography studio in Superior is a study in black and white. The cinder-block walls are painted white; the concrete floor is dark and glossy. Attached to the walls, floor-to-ceiling panels of concrete reinforcement mesh serve as a vertical work space. Clipped to the wires with clothespins and black metal clamps are black-and-white photographs – hundreds of them. Some are small enough to hold in your hand, and some are large, as wide as a door.
What is immediately striking about the photographs is the repetition: in Cozzi’s work space, there is never just one of anything. The same scenes, the same faces, appear over and over; nothing happens only once. One area is a sea of one face repeated dozens of times, with myriad variations in light. Handwritten notes attached to some of the prints offer observations and suggestions. You imagine Cozzi working in her darkroom: hours and days of printing the same face, over and over and over, seeing it in new ways each time, finding new things to see in it.
Cozzi has warm brown eyes and wears her long salt-and-pepper hair in a braid down her back. She speaks with an East Coast accent – she was born in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of Cape Cod. Her parents were restaurateurs and artists. Her husband is a photographer, but she didn’t pick up a camera until she was in her thirties. She studied anthropology, sociology and psychology in college. She says she never expected that photography would become her life’s passion.
“It really was a love affair,” she says, recalling that at the time she was painfully shy. “It got me out on the street, it got me talking to people,” she remembers. She had just come back from working for the Peace Corps, and she missed the sense of connection that was possible in small villages.
Photography combined her interest in studying and understanding people with the artistry of print-making. Through continuing classes at Otis Parsons in Los Angeles, she studied alternative processes and the work of Ansel Adams. “What I became aware of was all the changes and how you could change a print,” she says. “There were almost an infinite number of variables.”
For three decades now, Cozzi has been doing documentary work using black and white 35 mm film.
In the mid-nineties, Cozzi began to photograph teens who were pregnant. It began with a UN request for photos to accompany statistics about teenage pregnancy. Through friends who were Peace Corps volunteers or health workers, Cozzi met dozens of these young women. She interviewed and photographed them in their homes.
“Some of them were [only] ten years old,” Cozzi remembers. “The oldest had had 16 kids and was thirty-something. I would go back time and again because I was fascinated with how especially the younger ones were changing.”
A decade later, Cozzi returned. She located, interviewed, and photographed the women again. She recalls that during the second set of interviews, the women had developed trust in her and were willing to talk about things they hadn’t mentioned before. Cozzi says that these included “a lot of rape, a lot of abuse, and that kind of thing. The real story.”
“I was the only person in a lot of places that they could talk to,” Cozzi says.
Just inside the entrance to the studio hangs a large portrait of a teenage girl. Her face conveys strength and toughness, but at the corner of her eye is a single tear.
The photographs and excerpts from the interviews were published in the book Entre querés y quisieras/Between Wishing and Needing in 2009. Cozzi published the book herself, with the help of the UN Population Fund.
Cozzi also developed educational materials in Spanish and English to accompany the book – discussion cards and workbooks intended to encourage thought and discussion about sexuality, family life, abuse, and violence.
In the center of Cozzi’s studio, a spacious worktable is cluttered with prints – stacks of them, mostly organized in plastic storage bags – and books. There are Spanish and English copies of Entre querés y quisieras, and the bright blue cover of Bessel van der Kolk’s best-selling The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
To one side is a standing writing desk whose shelves hold books about writing and music. On the floor is a knee-high stack of boxes of photographic paper.
About Entre querés y quisieras, Cozzi recalls, “What I thought was so wonderful … was people would read it and they’d cry, or they’d go, ‘Oh my God, that happened to me,’ or that kind of thing. And that to me had the value. That I had hit on something, that in fact it wasn’t just in my imagination that this was happening all over the place … and that people do want to talk.”
Cozzi says many people will read the book and say that the issues it raises exist only in certain places or among certain socioeconomic classes. Cozzi says this is not true. “This is worldwide, and it does not matter your socioeconomic level,” she says. “We need to be talking about this stuff.” She adds, “I was [creating] a vehicle that made it easier for people to talk about stuff that’s really nasty. … We have to talk about this stuff, because if we don’t talk about it, it will never change.”
Another long-term project of hers is titled, ”Mujeres en Comun/Women in Common.” Cozzi explains that this is a personal project she began as a way to show commonalities among women who differ in appearance, culture, socioeconomic level and education. Part of this series is devoted to sex workers and their families. Cozzi says she started the series in the spirit of “There but for the grace of God go I.”
In the description of the project, she writes, “I have a good education, I’m white and I’ve always had food to eat and a roof over my head … But what would I do or be like if my circumstances were different?”
Cozzi says, “My whole [interest] has always been their families – them and their families. I don’t really [care] what they do. It is them as people, them as women … and so I don’t have photos of them working. I have photos of them.“
She began the project in 1985 and is now in the process of locating all of the women she has photographed since she started, to find out what has happened to them and how they have changed.
Hands have also been a subject of Cozzi’s work. Six years ago, while cooking, Cozzi cut two flexor tendons in her own left hand and required surgery. Because of complications, she was unable to use her arm at all for a year and experienced difficulties for another five years. It’s only been since last winter that she has been able to work normally.
While in hand therapy, Cozzi met another woman who was having difficulties with her hands. Cozzi recalls that “her hands were perfectly formed but they were completely black up to the wrists.” Cozzi has been photographing her for three years now. Cozzi says the series is meant to document the woman’s changes and challenges and to reflect on the transformations that take place when a person is seriously injured. It also honors the work of the hand therapist who helped Cozzi heal and is still working with the woman who is Cozzi’s subject.
For Cozzi, her photography has always been personal. “It is a sounding board for my own prejudices, stereotypes and assumptions,” she explains. “At the same time it has given me the means to discuss issues or complex problems in a way that is accessible to a wide audience.”
Cozzi says her reasons for selecting teen pregnancy as a major focus of her work is also personal. She says there are stories she hasn’t told because she doesn’t have permission, adding, “There are things that still fill me with anger.”
An exhibit at the Los Angeles Center of Photography will include photographs from Cozzi’s hand therapy, sex worker, and teenage pregnancy series. The exhibit opens October 28 and ends November 11.
Cozzi plans to publish a book of the hand therapy photographs, which she hopes will serve as a tool for patients and their families, caregivers and friends, as well as health care workers, to help them understand the challenges involved. She explains that she and her subject want to “let others know that recovery is a messy process, but you can get through it.”
“I guess all my projects turn into useful things,” Cozzi says. “I want them to be useful.”