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Former 'Playboy' Editor Opens Portrait Studio

Jeff Cohen spent more than 30 years traveling the country to take photos of celebrities and models for Hugh Hefner. Now, the North Shore native is taking intimate, black and white portraits in Highland Park.

In 1967, Jeff Cohen went on his first photo shoot for his new boss: Hugh Hefner.

"I was 22 and I had a job at Playboy," the 68-year-old said. "I became an instant celebrity."

In 1974, he photographed Clint Eastwood at his studio in California, after the two ate sandwiches together, drank a few beers and compared shoes. 

"There was a knock on the door, and there was Clint," he said. "We both had bought the same pair of sneakers."

Soon after, Cohen did a shoot with Cindy Crawford, who showed up to his place without the now-typical celebrity entourage of publicists and assistants.

"She came by herself. They never do that anymore."

Last Saturday, Cohen took photos of a father, his four children and their black Labrador. 

The dog sat on a black leather bar stool in the middle of Cohen's studio in Highland Park, alternating between staring straight at the camera and licking his owner's bald head. Cohen was affable and excited. He encouraged the family to move closer together, and occasionally told them to close their eyes and relax. 

Each time he got a good shot, he hustled over to the family to show it off.

After a four-decade career traveling the world for one of the biggest magazines in pop culture history, the North Shore native has brought his work home.

A typical job interview, except with whiskey

Cohen might never have worked for Playboy if he'd been just a little less bold in his early twenties. Born in Wilmette, Cohen went to New Trier High School and then to Syracuse University, where he studied economics and copywriting. He landed a copywriting job in New York, which asked him to start the Monday after graduation. 

But Cohen wanted more time to himself before he started working, so he turned the job down. 

Instead, he went on a road trip with a friend to California, Las Vegas and Mexico.

"I bummed around the country for five weeks," Cohen said. "At that point, I picked up a camera and started shooting."

Cohen had always liked photography — he used to clip his favorite pictures from Life Magazine as a kid — but taking photos on the trip made Cohen realize he had a knack for it as well. 

"I never really had the incentive to actually take pictures," Cohen said. "Not until I, duh, picked up a camera and thought, 'Well, I can do that.'"

He came home and started assembling a portfolio. Not that he would need it. The person who hired him at Playboy didn't even look at his work before offering Cohen a job. Instead, in a perhaps telling job interview, the two drank Jack Daniels and talked shop.

"I hit it off with the photography director," Cohen said. "We had a higher level conversation."

Soon, Cohen was assisting the magazine's eight staff photographers on shoots. He got to see how different photographers worked with models and celebrities to get the perfect shot. Some photographers gave a lot of direction. Others didn't. The steadfast rule was to make the subject comfortable.

This wasn't always easy.

"A 19- to 21-year-old young lady about to experience this dream come true, for her, as far as being photographed, is incredibly intimidating," Cohen admits.

Playboy soon promoted him to photo editor, which put him behind a desk rather than behind a camera. He grew restless.

"I got frustrated," he said. "I was handing out assignments that I would rather be doing myself."

So he took a leave of absence and went to San Francisco, where he opened a small studio.

He shot promotional material for United Airlines, Greyhound and Yamaha. He took pictures of the inventor of Atari, one of the first successful video game systems. 

He threw parties where people like current California Sen. Dianne Feinstein showed up to take photos of herself wearing funny glasses in Cohen's photo booth. Others played Pong on one of the Atari machines he'd borrowed.

Seven years went by.

"Then Playboy dangled a job for me to be photo editor of Oui Magazine," Cohen said.

His health wasn't great, his overhead was high and his parents were getting older. He was ready to come home.

"I packed up my studios and came back to Chicago."

'The power of Playboy'

He returned to Playboy, where he continued working in varying positions until retiring in 2010. Over the years he worked with legendary photographers like George Hurrell to shoot celebrities like John Candy as well as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.

He got questioned by guards in the former Soviet Union when his bags were suspiciously filled with women's underwear (he was there for a shoot). He saw Cuba and Europe. He photographed the Yakuza in Japan. 

He got to experience something few in journalism will ever see: assignments with no budget constraints.

"We'd just go off and do it," Cohen said. "It was the time of the power of Playboy."

Like many publications, Playboy magazine has lost the pull it once had. In a recent piece on Hefner, Esquire details how Playboy has changed from a magazine to a brand, and how the magazine itself is no longer the financial linchpin holding the company together.

In fact, the magazine seems to be fading fast. Soon after Cohen retired, his division at Playboy was shuttered.

"I was fortunate enough to be there during the heyday when we could do no wrong," Cohen said. "It was a great run."

Gary Cole, who worked as Playboy's director of photography for more than 30 years, says he's sad that the "Golden Age of Playboy has passed." 

"Playboy the print magazine will disappear one of these days," Cole said. "We were very lucky to have these jobs."

Cole, who lives in Evanston, still keeps in touch with Cohen, with whom he worked for decades.

"Jeff was really good at reassuring and making people feel comfortable," Cole said. "Without that, the shooting is not any good."

Cole said that he and Cohen were always all too aware of how good they had it, working for a magazine with so much recognition and so few limitations. They were nostalgic about their jobs while they still had them.

"We always knew when it was going on that these were the good old days," Cole said. "When I got the chance to work there it was like manna from heaven."

Exploring the moment

Cohen's Highland Park studio showcases his Playboy odyssey: a photo of one of his three children with Michael Jordan, a photo of Donald Trump shooting aspiring Playmates in New York and a photo of Cohen and his wife of 35 years in the Playboy mansion adorn a back room of the storefront on Roger Williams.

The bathroom wall is covered in framed, yellow faxes sent from Hefner to Cohen, reprimanding him for editorial decisions made during his time at the magazine.

But if the back of his studio is Cohen's attempt to brag about his exciting past, the front end exudes enthusiasm about his new venture. The front window facing the Ravinia Business District is covered with intimate, black and white portraits Cohen has taken since setting up shop.

One photo is of Abra Cohen, a 25-year-old from Highland Park (no relation to Jeff), who is an aspiring dancer living in New York. She went to Cohen to get headshots for auditions.

"There's a lot of thinking that goes on when someone is about to be in front of the camera," she said. "I didn't really know what the expectations were from the get-go."

Sensing that apprehension is what triggered Cohen to do what he's spent decades learning to do: making his subjects comfortable.

"He's got a great personality… I stopped thinking as much and I started just to be present," Abra said. "It's almost as if you're working together."

In the few months since opening, Cohen has wasted no time making his presence known. He put photos he took in Italy on display in Arriva Dolce, and recently displayed another group of photographs at The Art Center in Highland Park. He's gotten so busy that he's actually on the lookout for an intern. Recently, he was commissioned by the city to take photos of the city council when its new members are sworn in.

The call came after someone from the city's staff happened to walk by the studio window, Cohen said. It's not the first time the window has gotten him business.

"A woman comes in the door in January, and says, 'I'd like to have my picture taken,'" Cohen said. He assumed she wanted to schedule an appointment. She said she wanted it done now.

"Can you come back in 15 minutes?" he asked her.

No. Now.

"She had been down to Taylor Reese Salon," Cohen explained, chuckling. "She was meeting friends at Abigail's in five minutes. I said, 'Okay, let's do it.'"

It's that kind of spontaneity that keeps Cohen engaged in the job. He's the kind of photographer who believes a person looks best when they feel totally comfortable. The chance to catch people on camera looking natural is what makes the work worthwhile.

"I was never a darkroom guy. I like the interaction and the progress and the energy in taking pictures," Cohen said. "My true love is exploring the moment. That's the juice for me."

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