Jessie Cohen, known around the world as the “panda photographer” for the hundreds of images she shot of the charismatic creatures at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.,died Oct. 24 of breast cancer at her home in Silver Spring, Md. She was 57.
Ms. Cohen, a photographer with the Zoo since 1979, climbed trees, was bitten by birds and dodged onions thrown at her by gorillas in the course of her career. Her work was not limited to panda portraits; she shot millions of images of a range of animals that were published around the world in newspapers, magazines, books, calendars, greeting cards and Web sites.
The slide show below demonstrates her range. She photographed a Sumatran tiger and a tiger salamander, events such as Boo at the Zoo, veterinary procedures, births and the artificial insemination of an elephant.
In an interview with Friends of the National Zoo for its 2009 calendar, she recalled, “As a kid, I loved nature and spent my summers looking at amphibians, plants and mushrooms. My dream was to have a job working on exhibits like nature dioramas. I ended up here—and it’s not so different from that dream. As an animal photographer, I can make something tangible from the natural world.”
Ms. Cohen traveled widely for the Zoo. She went to Brazil when golden lion tamarins were reintroduced to the wild, to Thailand to photograph clouded leopards and twice to China to document the giant pandas before and during their trip to the United States.
She also managed the photo department in the Zoo’s exhibits office, organizing a library of 500,000 images stored on historic glass plate negatives and in several film and digital forms.
Ms. Cohen was born Anne Jessica Cohen in Death Valley, Calif. She grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Beloit College in Wisconsin in 1974. She had wanted to major in biology, she told her alumni magazine, but the tedium of creating punch cards for computers dissuaded her. She switched to art but took many science classes.
She moved to Washington in 1974 to pursue her desire to be a photographer. She got her first job mounting slides at a photo shop and then was hired by the National Archives to work with its collections. She photographed the curbstone near the site where John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the shirt that suspect Lee Harvey Oswald wore on the day he was killed, among other items.
Ms. Cohen joined the Smithsonian in 1979. She taught classes in nature and zoo photography for FONZ, the Audubon Naturalist Society, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Graduate School and the Smithsonian Associates. More than 50 books use her work, and at least half of those list her as the photographer or co-author.
Ms. Cohen was an award-winning gardener whose home in Silver Spring was part of several garden tours, including those for the national conventions of the American Hemerocallis Society and the American Hosta Society. She was a member of the National Capital Daylily Club, the Potomac Hosta Club, Friends of Green Spring, Friends of the National Arboretum and several other groups.
Survivors include her companion of 33 years, Richard Galloway of Silver Spring, and two sisters.
(This article is an edited version of one by Patricia Sullivan that originally appeared in The Washington Post.)
The Torch would like to thank Mehgan Murphy and her colleagues at the Zoo for this thoughtful selection of Jessie’s work. Click on any image to begin a slide show.
Posted: 10 November 2009