Chad Cochran

Fredericktown native Chad Cochran, 47, has spent the last decade making a name for himself in the world of 'Americana' photography. He recently joined 78th Street Studios in downtown Cleveland, which has given him the opportunity to display his rural landscape and concert photography, as well as his mixed media pieces, to one of the largest monthly audiences in the region.

FREDERICKTOWN – When customers walk into Door 142, a bar and restaurant nestled into the corner of E. 1st St. and N. Main St. in downtown Fredericktown, it won’t take long for them to find Chad Cochran.

The tall man with the piercing blue eyes, the wintry grey beard and the soft smile, is nowhere and everywhere at the same time. He’s not physically present – he lives in Cleveland and doesn’t make it back to his hometown often – but his heart and soul is.

Look ahead from the entrance and see an old dresser drawer, turned on its side and leaning against the bar. Inside the drawer are three haunting pictures of old farm houses, broken down and colored grey, which are plastered onto seemingly analogous sections of the 19th century novel ‘The Last Days of Pompeii.’

Look to the left and see two framed photos, one a little higher than the other. The one on the left is of an old farmhouse, resting in a field of white snow. The sky behind it is three shades of darkness, which seem to envelop the structure. The photo on the right has the same dark sky, but a different subject – it hovers this time over a rolling wheat field in the summertime, the black clouds preparing to dump buckets of rain onto the thirsty earth.

There are 13 of these framed photos and four ‘mixed media pieces,’ as Cochran calls them, hanging on the restaurant’s walls. They’re his way of giving back to the village that raised him.

“I’m proud of where I’m from,” said Cochran, a 1990 Fredericktown High School graduate who just turned 47, and who just took another major leap in the world of professional photography: he opened an art and portrait studio in downtown Cleveland last Friday.

The art on the walls is one of the few tangible connections between Cochran and his hometown; his father passed away and his mother relocated to Bellville five years ago. It’s a way for people to see what he’s up to, at least in his night job.

But it’s also deeper than that.

***

Growing up in the 80s, Cochran was the quintessential Fredericktown kid.

He listened to rock and roll – not only hair metal, but the heavier stuff, too, like Metallica and Slayer. He played football and baseball, and he lifted weights in the winter.

Did he go to the Tomato Show?

“Never missed it,” Cochran said.

But Cochran’s most vivid memories came in the backseat of his dad’s brown Chevrolet Camaro Z28, the one with the long hood that hung low to the ground. After his family would finish dinner on summer nights, his dad would take him and his mom on joy rides through the country.

They would glide down Knox County’s scenic backroads, no discussion, just listening to music. It was a time to think, or not to think, and to soak it all in. 40 years later, Cochran recalls those Friday and Saturday nights vividly.

It would take decades before he found that feeling again. But when he did, it changed his life.

Cochran was living in Columbus in 2009 when his wife bought him a camera. He admits now that he didn’t know how to use it. But from the start, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with it.

He drove down Ohio’s most hidden backroads and started taking pictures. He was drawn to “capturing and documenting what’s not going to be there much longer,” as he put it. Old barns, decaying farm houses, vintage signs – he would listen to music and ride around in his car and not say anything – just point and shoot.

The process gave him peace. It served as an escape from reality. He fell in love with darkness, the decay, and the beauty that lay within it.

Years later, he realized what he was doing. He was reliving his childhood.

“When you’re a kid, your brain kind of acts like a sponge,” Cochran said. “You don’t necessarily know at the time how your brain is taking in that information and where it’s going to later show up in your life.”

This passion for rural photography developed over the years, becoming more than just a hobby. Cochran spent long afternoons patrolling Ohio’s dirt roads and discovering hidden gems.

He started by publishing photos on Facebook and Instagram, prompting positive feedback. He soon got requests from people wanting to buy them, which he humbly said "was all very confusing.”

Soon, he expanded his repertoire to include music photography. This was a natural addition for Cochran, as he took his concept of “dark, broody” imaging into a rock-and-roll world that spoke the same language.

He started shooting concerts and portrait photos for bands, and he fell in love with the process (Cochran has long been a music junkie, as he remembers rock-and-roll posters covering the walls of his childhood room like wallpaper).

He loved “the rush” of being in the media pit at a deafening rock concert, scrambling to “capture the moment,” as he told Richland Source’s Noah Jones on the Open Mic Podcast in August.

During the day, Cochran is a national account sales manager for a Chicago-based fitness equipment manufacturer. He works in Cleveland, where he lives with his wife, Lee Ann, and their three children. At night, Cochran is the man behind the lense. And he’s good – no, really good – at it, despite getting off to a late start.

“He has a great eye and remarkable composition skills,” noted Jeff Niesel, music editor for Cleveland Scene magazine, who Cochran shoots for from time to time. “Whether shooting a punk and hard festival like Incarceration, a classic rock act like ZZ Top or an Americana act like Over the Rhine, Chad is able to capture the essence of the festival/artist.

“Shooting a rock concert can be tricky given the parameters set by artists, who sometimes limit photographers to just a few songs, and given the conditions of the venue, which can be crowded and poorly lit, but Chad always comes back with photos that look as if the artist posed for them.”

Now he shoots a mix of rural landscape, portrait and concert photos. His side hustle has taken him across the country, everywhere from West Virginia to Nashville, but one of the most important nights of his young career happened in Fredericktown.

It was there, at Door 142, where he held an art show in 2016.

The idea came about when Cochran learned of the restaurant's opening the year before. Cochran told owner Rachel Mackall how excited he was; she was taking a serious entrepreneurial risk, opening Fredericktown's first restaurant and bar since 1946.

“I was so excited that somebody was taking a huge chance, an absolutely huge risk in a town like Fredericktown, to put a very nice restaurant in and spend the money in doing that,” Cochran said.

Cochran and Mackall both grew up in Fredericktown, but years apart. They became friends over Facebook; Mackall enjoyed his photography and the two connected over art.

They decided they would hold an art show as a way to promote not only Cochran's work, but also the restaurant itself. 

Cochran Buckeye Candy & Tobacco Building

Cochran took this photo of the old Buckeye Candy & Tobacco building, located in downtown Mount Vernon, years ago.

When they advertised the event, they weren't sure if it would succeed. Cochran was still relatively unknown, and Door 142 was new in town. A crowd wasn't exactly guaranteed.

But by the night's end, both Mackall and Cochran were blown away by the turnout.

“It was fantastic,” Cochran remembers. “Probably one of the most well-attended events that I’ve ever done, and I’ve done over 60 art shows.”

“That night was awesome,” Mackall agreed. “All of his friends and fans showed up. And we did a true gallery opening, it wasn’t about the restaurant. I mean, we obviously served food and drinks, but it was more about Chad.

“He came in and he hung up his pieces, and then set up some really cool displays with old suitcases with non-framed photos in it. It was just a celebration of Chad and Fredericktown, honestly.”

Cochran Fredericktown feed mill

Cochran took this photo of Fredericktown's iconic feed mill years ago.

***

Cochran has come a long way since his point-and-shoot days a decade ago.

For someone who never had an interest in art or photography growing up, he’s learned quickly about what it takes to make a good portrait, a good still shot, a good concert photo. He’s quickly become one of the best, as musicians from across the nation regularly seek him out at festivals and concerts for portrait photoshoot opportunities.

Over time, Cochran has carved out a niché in Americana photography. His style is unique, using dark undertones to capture the complex nature of the musicians and hidden spaces he photographs. His style is known by artists nationwide – including Jason Isbell, the four-time Grammy Award winner, who has commended his work.

As he's gained popularity, he developed a brand – “cowtownchad” – which he uses for all of his social media platforms. After graduating from Bowling Green State University and bouncing around from state to state for a few years, Cochran spent 15 years in Columbus. The state’s capitol had long been nicknamed ‘Cow Town’ for its urban/rural mix. Ever proud of his Ohio roots, Cochran dedicated his brand name to the idea.

Cochran has nearly 13,000 Instagram followers, who are some of the first to see his next best shot. His website, where he sells select pieces, houses his entire portfolio. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, Billboard, and Guitar Player magazine. Some of his pieces have already been archived in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

After years of building his profile, Cochran recently earned a potentially career-altering opportunity: he would get to open his own art and portrait studio at 78th Street Studios in downtown Cleveland. He joined the Laura Herbold gallery and will showcase his work to the world during 78th Street’s prestigious ‘Third Friday’ event.

78th Street Studios is “the largest art and design complex in Northeast Ohio, featuring 170,000 square feet of art galleries, artist studios, performance spaces, and music recording studios,” its website says.

Last Friday, Cochran opened his studio for the first time. It will be open the third Friday of every month from 5-9 p.m. Thousands pass through the studio walk on Third Fridays, which means Cochran’s work – everything from his rural and musician-based photography to his mixed media pieces, like the one found at the front of Door 142 – will gain unprecedented exposure.

Cochran 78th Street Studio

Cochran's 78th Street studio exhibits the same backwoods, Americana feel that's present in his art work.

Cochran can also now claim a more professional work environment. Instead of shooting portraits in his basement, he can invite subjects to his downtown loft.

Just a handful of years into his professional photography career, Cochran is excited about what lies ahead.

“I don’t want this to sound the wrong way or to toot my own horn the wrong way,” Cochran, humble as they come, warned, “but I think as my name has grown. I’ve become more recognized and more associated with rural Ohio and associated with a lot of the Americana genre, and I certainly want to keep that trajectory going in the right direction.”

***

Calling from Cleveland earlier this month, Cochran said he felt lucky.

He feels fortunate to have found his passion for art later on in life. He was 39 years old when his wife bought him his first camera.

“It’s funny, I have several friends in the music industry and one of them told me that he didn’t write his first hit until he was 44 years old,” Cochran told Jones. “And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s how that works.’ You just keep at it and eventually, something will happen.”

And to be clear, for Cochran, “art fits in where it can.”

It comes second to his day job, which he’s happily held for 18 years, and to his family, which keeps him on his toes.

From an art standpoint, the last decade has moved blindingly fast. Cochran isn’t sure what’s next. And why would he be? That’s not who he is.

“I love that he’s always changing,” said Mackall, who still keeps in touch. “He doesn’t stay with one style, he’s always trying to learn and move forward as an artist, and I think that shows a lot in his work and his dedication.”

Over the years, he’s evolved from a rural landscape photographer to a concert photographer to a portrait photographer, and now he considers himself a mix of all three. He calls it “Americana,” a tribute to his hometown of just over 2,000.

“I want to keep moving. ‘I don’t sit well’ is probably the best way to say it,” Cochran said. “I don’t just sit in my chair and relax very well. So I always want to be moving, I always want to be trying new things.”

A slice of Cochran’s legacy can still be located on the walls of Door 142, a backdrop to the typical evening buzz. After his 2016 show, Cochran offered to leave some of his art there so it could be seen and potentially sold to those who stop by. Mackall said customers still inquire about the photos, and when she sells them, Cochran offers replacements – all with the nondescript “CC” scribbled at the bottom right-hand corner.

Cochran’s professional life has taken him across the country – across the world – but he hasn't forgotten his hometown.

In fact, he misses it.

“There’s still something romantic about Fredericktown," Cochran explains.

It comes through in his work. There’s something about the way the sky looks over a field when the summer thunder rolls in, something about the conversation between a driver and a dirt road when it’s just them, and nothing is said.

It takes Cochran back to those childhood nights, windows down, riding in the backseat of his father’s Camaro. It makes him realize that no matter where he goes, he will always have Fredericktown – and Fredericktown will always have him.

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.