Ira Cohen – A tribute to a great [diabetic] artist

collection of photographs by Ira Cohen in the GlucoLift office

For the past couple months, we’ve been getting set up in a new office space. Lots of travel has meant that it has proceeded slower than I’d prefer, but such is life.

Recently, we were able to carve out some space for a sitting area, which will hopefully get some use if anyone ever decides to visit us. Today, I put some art up on the wall.

photograph of Pharaoh Sanders by Ira Cohen in the GlucoLift office

Pharaoh Sanders















These photographs have been traveling around with me for over a decade, never having been hung or even framed before. They were taken by Ira Cohen in the late 1960s, and are the first photographs I ever purchased. Readers of a certain age will recognize Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs, and Pharaoh Sanders, among others. All of these were shot in Ira’s mylar chamber, long before Photoshop and digital photography made manipulations like this commonplace.

photograph of Jimi Hendrix by Ira Cohen in the GlucoLift office

Jimi Hendrix

Ira was one of my first friends when I moved to New York in 1999 and began working in the art world. We would go to dirty gallery openings and poetry readings on the lower east side, and swankier events in Soho. Often, because he was already in his late 60s and moving slower, I would drive him home to his apartment on the Upper West Side, which was like a museum, piled high with untold treasures from a life lived in equal parts creating and witnessing some of the more important cultural movements in the second half of the 20th Century.

William Burroughs

William Burroughs

Ira was a poet, a photographer, a filmmaker, a publisher and a spiritual journeyman. He reeked of wisdom and adventure. He also lived with diabetes.

My years with Ira came before my own diagnosis, so my understanding of his condition was limited, and he rarely discussed it, but I do remember seeing him with his vial of insulin and syringe, which was probably my first recollection of those tools in person.

The last time I saw Ira was at a friend’s wedding in 2007, less than a month after my diagnosis, and it was clear that diabetes was starting to take a toll on his health. His feet were swollen and wrapped, and he was moving even slower than before. He didn’t offer me any guidance or warnings on living with diabetes, but it was one more thing we were able to share.


Self portrait- Astral Projections

Self portrait- Astral Projections

Ira passed away in 2011 of renal failure, no doubt a complication of many hard years of lifewith diabetes. Though Ira was a brilliant and highly regarded artist, and worked with many, many famous people, he was never a financial success (and by all accounts never aspired to be). In fact, some of my photographs were bought on a monthly plan to help him cover his bills.

In a day when almost any PWD with a modest amount of exposure in the entertainment world can expect to make the cover of Diabetes Forecast and gain the adulation of people with diabetes and their families across the country, Ira was a great artist who, to my knowledge, has thus far remained unknown to the diabetes community. It would be nice for more people to learn about the amazing work he did and celebrate all that he gave the world.

So after so many years, I’ve finally gotten around to getting his photographs framed, and, in a strange twist of irony, am hanging them in the office of my diabetes-focused business. Perhaps not nearly as exciting as many of the other walls his work has graced, but I hope a fitting home nonetheless.

So if you’re ever in San Diego and would like to drop in and say hi, and maybe peruse some beautiful work by an exceptional artist who happened to also live with diabetes, drop us a line.

You can learn more about Ira at his official website, and read his New York Times obituary here.