John Cohen, who helped revive "old-time" music in the late 1950s and early '60s with the New Lost City Ramblers, offers an elegantly simple way to consider his 60-year career:
He's a visual artist who loves music.
His myriad works – 17 documentary films, thousands of photographs, and countless musical recordings and concerts – are simply "different ways of expressing it," he said. "Eventually, you all see they come from the same place."
Cohen, now in his early 80s, was playing banjo in New York when he picked up the phone earlier this week to talk about his many coming activities at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.
A seven-film retrospective will start with his first documentary, 1962's "That High Lonesome Sound," about the traditional music in eastern Kentucky and its role in lives of the rural poor.
It will continue through his far-flung travels to South America ("The Mountain Music of Peru") and Scotland ("Gypsies Sing Long Ballads"), and finish with his most recent work, 2014's "Visions of Mary Frank."
Cohen got to know Frank as a fixture of the New York art world, when he lived on the same block as her and her husband, the photographer Robert Frank.
The film, based on interviews with Mary Frank and archival footage and photographs, follows her career as an artist. Cohen said her work – whether painting, sculpture or drawing, is figurative, "very imaginary" and "very visionary."
Big Sky Documentary Film Festival programming director Doug Hawes-Davis said Cohen's work falls in the cinéma vérité tradition of documentary filmmaking. He said Cohen, like American documentarian Les Blank, tackles stories in the realm of popular culture or what should be popular culture – hidden gems in the artistic and musical worlds.
Adding to the vérité feel is Cohen's chosen medium for most of his career: 16 mm film.
He said it's a different way of thinking, editing and shooting.
He has to be spontaneous and intuitive to capture the things happening around him.
"You're directing and looking and image-making and participating all at the same time," he said.
Big Sky reached out to Cohen for a retrospective because his work crosses so many genres, which will all be shared with the public this weekend.
Cohen's original black-and-white prints will be at the Brink gallery starting on First Friday.
They'll include his famous portraits of Bob Dylan, shot in 1962 at Cohen's loft on Third Avenue when Dylan was a recent Minnesota transplant and not yet an iconic figure. He'll also display prints of Woody Guthrie, Robert Frank, and Roscoe Holcomb, a Kentucky coal miner, musician and subject of Cohen's film "Roscoe Holcomb From Daisy, Kentucky."
Brink gallery owner Jennifer Leutzinger said the compositions are all candid. They capture life as it happens, whether a religious ceremony in Kentucky, a youthful Jack Kerouac listening to himself on the radio, or a striking photograph of Mary Frank.
Cohen's work has been shown in variety of contexts – some museums have considered them as anthropology, others as artworks.
"It's interesting how the world has to categorize things," said Cohen, who taught photography and drawing at Purchase College in New York for decades.
He never considered his work, whether in Appalachia or Peru, as preservation.
He was aware of such anthropological or historical projects, and wasn't setting out to comment on them or create anything better or worse.
"I just wanted to experience the world for myself on my own terms," he said. "I've been thinking about this a lot of late."
That meant traveling to South America or Appalachia before the ease of smartphone or Internet-assisted travel.
He was "pretty much alone" on those two projects – he had to learn to answer his own questions, pay attention to people and his surroundings, the music and the environment, and what it was telling him.
None of those films or photography expeditions were assignments – there weren't even photo galleries when he began shooting in the 1950s.
"You just get out there and do it," he said.
On Sunday, Cohen will perform at the Top Hat with the backing of Scrapyard Lullaby, a Missoula folk trio.
Performing live with a local band is a tradition he came up with years ago, when an exhibition of his photographs was making its way around the country.
The museums would inquire if he was interested in playing. He said he would, on the condition that they arranged for a local string band to back him – and they'd play a set based on their common repertoire. He said the format is "an adventure."
In Missoula, he plans on playing some "old-time" songs and ballads.
"If I feel up to it, I might do a song about Missoula," he said.
He and the Ramblers came here on a tour once, and he wrote the tune after he went to see a church on a reservation.
He's never played the tune in public before. He might Sunday, "if I have the courage," he said with a chuckle.