Kohl photographed people on the edge with compassion

His touching images are on display at School 33


November 13, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Baltimore photographer Joseph Kohl, whose career was cut short last year by his death from leukemia at age 45, left behind a large and varied body of work that is now the subject of an impressive retrospective exhibition at School 33 Art Center through Dec. 2.

Among the approximately 80 mostly black-and-white photographs in the show are many examples of Kohl's long-running fascination with people who live on society's margins - striptease dancers, transvestites, circus performers, etc.

He seemed to have a particular gift for approaching such people on the streets and in their workplaces and winning their trust, and the empathy he brought to these encounters spilled over into nearly every other photographic project he undertook.

A number of Kohl's most poignant images were produced in his Baltimore Street studio, where he executed many probing psychological portraits of the people he met.

One undated series depicts an unidentified young woman, apparently in her twenties, whose expressions suggest a touching vulnerability beneath her tough, punk-rock exterior.

It is not known how many photographs Kohl made of this woman, nor over how long a period of time they were made nor when. We don't know what her relationship to the photographer was nor whether she ever saw the pictures, or what her reaction to them might have been.

In some of the photographs she appears nude and with her head shaved against a studio backdrop printed with abstract patterns as if in preparation for some ritual ceremony or performance. In others her hair is close-cropped and she is posed semi-nude against a plain white background.

One of the images is of a young woman whose breasts and belly are swollen with pregnancy. Because her face is not visible, however, it is impossible to tell whether she is the same woman as in the other pictures.

What is striking about all of the pictures in the series is how Kohl departs from traditional depictions of the idealized female form in order to suggest deeper psychological or spiritual states of being.

This was one of the hallmarks of his art that appears in one form or another in nearly all his photographs, whether the subject was a Little League ball game, a political event or the doings of Baltimore's quirky artistic underground.

During his illness, Kohl's family turned over his entire archive of several thousand unedited negatives and prints to his friend and colleague, photographer Carl Clark, who was curator for this show.

"Joe emoted through his camera," Clark wrote in his statement accompanying the exhibition. "It was a pivotal means by which he socialized. And with it Joe was afforded access to people, places and events that, without his camera, would [have gone] unexposed."

This show is very much a tribute to Kohl's unique gift to the people he photographed, to viewers of his work and to the qualities of empathy and compassion celebrated in the images he left behind.

School 33 is at 1427 Light St. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Call 410-396-4641.

For more art events, see page 43.

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