There is no way for me or anybody here at the Beat to discuss the Maryland Historical Society’s current exhibit “Unscripted Moments: The Life & Photography of Joseph Kohl” without wading through a number of disclosures and so, here they are: Former Baltimore City Paper Photo Editor J.M. Giordano—a past co-worker of myself, Lisa Snowden-McCray, and Maura Callahan—helped put together the exhibit; also involved was another former CP-er Joe Tropea, current curator of films and photographs at MdHS, along with Josh Sisk and Andrew Holter (who is also, further disclosure, a friend of mine), both frequent freelancers for CP. And Kohl himself is probably best known for his work in CP.
As a result of all these conflicts of interest, there’s just no way to “objectively” (whatever that means) review this show. I can tell you that “Unscripted Moments” brilliantly offers up Baltimore as, yes, land of quirk, and also counters that thanks to Kohl’s empathetic eye, providing something deeper, sweeter, and sadder about Baltimore, all the while chilling out with the kinds of people often ignored when we think of Baltimore’s past—Kohl’s approach to sex workers and trans folks in particular is touching and empowering. But my opinion should hold little critical weight because I love these photos and love the people who put this exhibit together. And so, in lieu of a review, we thought we’d get our insight on “Unscripted Moments” from someone behind-the-scenes—Andrew Holter, who worked on the collection as an intern for over two years. Below are his thoughts. Consider them the liner notes to “Unscripted Moments.” (Brandon Soderberg)
“Joe Kohl. . . . Should I know him?”
Someone asked me this recently at a party, after I mentioned the new exhibit of photos by Joe Kohl that just opened at the Maryland Historical Society. This person meant the question as a joke, like I was about to flash my badge from the What’s Dope in Art Police and reply, You don’t know Joe Kohl? What do you know? Did you just roll in from the county? Do you need a map to Faidley’s?
The fact is, though, everyone who lives in Baltimore should know the photographer Joe Kohl, but not because he was a brilliant and historically significant artist whose work is finally getting the kind of recognition it so obviously deserves from an institution like the Maryland Historical Society. No, that’s a judgment you can make for yourself when you see the exhibit. Baltimore should know Joe Kohl simply because in a better version of the city, Joe Kohl would still be walking around taking pictures. He would be a neighbor.
Kohl died in 2002 from consequences of his treatment for leukemia; this year he would be 60. It’s not hard to imagine him as one of those people who shows up everywhere, somehow—on the bus, in the bar, at the party, on the corner, by the water, in the park, always with a camera. An imposing presence (“bear-like,” I heard his sister say), with glasses and muttonchops, he couldn’t be missed or mistaken. He got around.
The breadth of Kohl’s subjects says that he would go anywhere he was assigned or invited to go through the 1980s and 1990s, until his illness. His career as a photojournalist took him to the usual scenes (City Hall, downtown office buildings, fires, the premiere of “Cry-Baby” at The Senator), but on and off the clock he followed his curiosities to rooms where more buttoned-up photographers feared to tread. He was known in our town’s S&M dungeons, biker bars, and dank rock clubs. He was known to dancers on The Block, and on blocks where trans sex workers worked. His access to these communities came only in part from the kind of intrepidness common to a lot of photographers; it had to have been more the way he made people feel in front of his camera. People trusted him to honor their hospitality and didn’t need him to validate their lives on the edges of respectability. They trusted him with their bodies.
Rat fishing in Pigtown? Kohl’s beat exactly. A PETA demonstration against rat fishing in Pigtown, with someone in a mascot-sized rat suit? Even better. Performances of passion attracted him, and people who embodied shamelessness: the teenager so absorbed in headbanging the kid beside him looks scared; the couple leading each other around on dog leashes; the queer protester strutting down the middle of a D.C. street with combat boots and bare breasts, blowing cigarette smoke like Castro rolling into Havana; the middle-aged “Howdy Doody” aficionado, clutching his doll as if it were a child and he were one too.
Vulnerable people are prone to exploitation by photographers; Kohl preferred the invulnerable, the kind of people who lived their difference in public as the truest and happiest versions of themselves. And Kohl liked the volatile too: “I think he really liked it when things went off the rails and he was there with his camera,” says his friend and model Donna Sherman in a short film that runs in this new exhibit. “I think that’s what he was going for. The unscripted spontaneous moments that could sort of never be repeated again.”
“Unscripted Moments: The Life and Photography of Joseph Kohl” is the first exhibit of Kohl’s pictures since 2003, when his closest friends, the photographers Carl Clark and Linda Day Clark, mounted a retrospective at School 33 Art Center in Federal Hill. The Clarks had helped salvage their friend’s work from the dumpster at the apartment complex where he lived. Alongside Kohl’s sisters, they helped locate his studio to recover the rest of his materials, and arranged for all the boxes and black garbage bags to go to the Maryland Historical Society—an unusual acquisition for a place whose collections run more to the 1790s than the 1990s. But there, under the supervision of Joe Tropea, the Historical Society’s curator of films and photographs and a ‘90s music scenester himself, the colossal undertaking of sorting, cleaning, cataloging, scanning, and making accessible all the stuff of Kohl’s life could begin.
Fourteen years later—with the help of interns Lane Walbert, Kira Kickla, Chuck Patch, Sarah LaCorte, Priscilla Williams, and myself—“Unscripted Moments” is finally happening. (Since Kohl left so few notes, the task of identifying the people, events, and dates of his photos is ongoing; Tropea encourages anyone with an educated guess about what they see to tell him.) Tropea invited photographers Josh Sisk and J.M. Giordano to help curate, and also called Linda Day Clark, who is approaching her 20th year teaching at Coppin State University in addition to her practice as an award-winning and nationally-exhibited photographer. Carl Clark, whom Kohl looked to as a mentor as well as a friend, succumbed to cancer at the end of 2015. This is the second show of Kohl’s work that Linda has helped create, and in his photos she can see things no one else can.
There are artists from Baltimore, and then there are people who come to Baltimore to be artists. Kohl, from Anne Arundel County, belonged to this second group, who have to be watched closely. The motives of this group aren’t always pure. They have a mixed record across all mediums for what they give to the city and what they take from it. Baltimore is framed, staged, fabricated, gussied up, or gussied down for outside viewers. Kohl wasn’t like that. He lived and worked here mainly for the second-tier publications, the alt-weeklies and community newspapers. Though some of his photos were syndicated around the country and published in a few (mostly small-run, arty) magazines, the pictures in “Unscripted Moments” were by and large for Baltimore to see. Often he gave prints away as gifts. His work was never to show the world how exceptionally quirky or hard-assed or appalling Baltimore is, but to document the city for the benefit of people living here, so they could see themselves and see their neighbors, which is at least as high a calling as the local pastor or city councilperson. It’s clear from the kind of circles he ran in that Kohl understood himself as a participant in the city—an accomplice in the mad tangle of violence, gentrification, and grassroots political and cultural resilience that was Baltimore at the end of the last century. Some things never change.
The writer Susan Sontag, who also died of leukemia, described street photographers as the natural descendants of 19th-century European flâneurs, who wandered their cities like walking was their job, soaking up all the sensation they could. The flâneur, Sontag wrote, was a “connoisseur of empathy”—a phrase that seems to fit the shoe-leather quality of Joe Kohl’s work and the pleasure he obviously took in other people. His appetite for the city was enormous. But flâneurs were also solitary and basically selfish. While the passports of Kohl’s race, gender, and physical presence gave him relatively safe passage around Baltimore (except under low doorways), his relationship to the city wasn’t that of an internal tourist or a colonist trying to assimilate all its variety under the big marketable tent of Charm City.
In a place as segregated and traumatized by its own self as Baltimore in 2017, Kohl’s photos leave behind a vision of what it can be to live in a city—even what it might look like in the earliest stages of building what Dr. King called “the beloved community.” Everyone counts in Kohl’s Baltimore. His approach to the city followed the logic of what bell hooks meant when she wrote: “Making the choice to look at images or read about people different from oneself, irrespective of whether those images are positive or negative, opens up the possibility that positive curiosity will be awakened and lead to positive contact.”
The people who let Kohl photograph them—many of whom are now gone —allowed him for reasons that had far less to do with the artistry of his work than the comfort he made them feel in the knowledge that their difference would be respected by his camera. The “diversity” of people in his photos hardly matters, though a lot of conventional wisdom backed by institutional money would say otherwise. “When we create beloved community, environments that are anti-racist and inclusive,” bell hooks writes, following King, “it need not matter whether those spaces are diverse. What matters is that, should difference enter the world of beloved community, it can find a place of welcome, a place to belong.” The way Joe Kohl made space in the city of his photographs for people to belong, to become permanent, makes his absence not just an artistic loss but a community loss.
On the night of the opening for “Unscripted Moments,” the Maryland Historical Society was full of people, many of them visiting the place for the first time. Joe Kohl’s family was there, and so were some of his colleagues, his models, his punks, his people—a little grayer in the temples than they were in 2003 and 1993. Behind the DJ table was Landis Expandis, whose band the All Mighty Senators was photographed by Kohl and features in the exhibit. I saw teenagers laughing at some of the Historical Society’s oil paintings as they waited for the elevators—solemn portraits of the old white-wigged owning class commissioned to broadcast their dignity and property, which in those days included much of Maryland’s natural resources and many of its people too. They do look silly, their postures stiff, faces pale as moons (or goths).
In the middle of the evening, Linda Day Clark took a moment to herself on a bench opposite the gallery crowded with people there to see her friend’s pictures. Many of them never knew Joe Kohl; a lot of them were children or not yet born when he died. On the walls are her face, her son Jameel’s face, her late husband’s face, and more faces of people who shared a place and a time together. Future generations will have to make sense of that place and time through Kohl’s gift of those faces, which now can’t disappear.
Linda sat by herself watching the entrance to the gallery for a still moment until someone came up to say hello.