Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

Slices of Baltimore life from photographer Joseph Kohl at Historical Society

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Baltimore has never lacked for attention from photographers. The best go far beyond chronicling the urbanscape to capture the people — unknown and familiar, ordinary and quirky, safe and risky — who give the city its character. That’s what Joseph Kohl did throughout a productive, all too short career.

The Maryland Historical Society’s vibrant exhibit “Unscripted Moments: The Life and Photography of Joseph Kohl” brings together more than 70 mostly black-and-white images that reveal his keen eye.

Born in Fort Belvoir, Va., and raised in Odenton, Kohl studied at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Maryland Institute College of Art. During his student days, he interned at the Sun. Later, he was a photographer for the News American and City Paper, among others.

The Glen Burnie resident, who was only 44 when he died of leukemia in 2002, drew comparisons to famed New York City street photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig from decades earlier. Like Fellig, Kohl documented diverse ranks of society. And, whether photographing City Hall politicians or Calvert Street sex workers, he managed to be at once revealing and non-judgmental.

“Anywhere he went, he seemed to be welcomed and trusted,” says Maryland Historical Society curator of films and photographs Joe Tropea, who co-curated the Kohl exhibit. “He had such a sense of empathy.”

Among the others on the curatorial team is photographer Linda Day Clark. She and her late husband, photographer Carl Clark, salvaged Kohl’s archives after the young man’s death and found a home for it at the Historical Society.

“There are over 55,000 images, most of them negatives,” Tropea says. “They were jammed into plastic storage bins. Over the past few years, we’ve hand-washed a lot of the film in a solution.”

Although the bulk of images chosen for the exhibit are undated, the curators determined that they span from around 1980 to Kohl’s final year. Portrait shots are included — Kohl had an affinity for getting natural-looking results in a studio — alongside telling examples of his photo-journalism.

“It’s a vision of Baltimore as Joe saw it, including some weird sights,” Tropea says.

Those sights include a senior citizen working at McDonald’s, his pose suggesting pride tinted with discomfort; a man in a crowd clasping a Howdy Doody doll close to his chest; a group of masked Santa’s Place workers; and indelible Baltimore mayor William Donald Schaefer, looking for all the world like a handyman as he paints a wall at City Hall.

Particularly memorable is the shot of a homeless person shrouded in thick dress and cape, standing next to the ornately barred window of an old building. The beauty of the shadow play on the architecture is offset by the haunted look on the face and a large hand-lettered sign hanging from the figure’s neck: “The ghost of Mulberry & Chatedral [sic] St.”

You want to know much more, but the image reveals nothing else. A lack of information is an issue for several items here. The museum invites visitors who think they can identify people in the photos to use their phones to scan a code that will access a form to fill out.

In disarming fashion, Kohl captured transgender prostitutes and entertainers from The Block. Other highlights include photographs of local band musicians and other nightlife (an annex show at the Windup Space features more of them), along with shots of people with animals, among them a veterinarian operating on a dog in a stark clinic.

There is room, too, for some outside-Baltimore material — a potent series of photos taken at a 1993 gay rights march in Washington.

Then there’s the image of a short, portly middle-aged gentleman working his way through a crowd while holding hands with a tall, smiling dominatrix in scanty leather regalia. Charm City, indeed.


If you go

"Unscripted Moments: The Life and Photography of Joseph Kohl" runs through April 30 at Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St. Admission is $6 to $9. Call 410-685-3750, or go to mdhs.org. A satellite exhibit of Kohl's works will run through December at Windup Space, 12 North Ave., where a free reception will be held at 7 p.m. Friday.


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