The Kansas City Art Institute Crossroads Gallery downtown, where Kohn's photographs are now on display, was created as a hot locale where student and faculty work could attract serious attention. It's a new space, though, and school is not currently in session, so Kathleen Collins asked some faculty members to display their work in the space until fall. Kohn is not a faculty member, and he's not a photographer by trade, but Collins asked him to consider showing his work anyway because she finds his vibrant photographs intriguing.
What's so gripping about these photographs is how straightforward they are. That they're not taken by someone whose focus is technique is obvious, not because the technique isn't good -- it is -- but because the emphasis is on what is being captured, as opposed to a clever process for capturing it. These photographs aren't about the artist. They're about the places he has been and what he has seen there. Taken together, they make up an impressive body of documentary photography that portrays Third World countries without some of the romanticism that characterizes the work of younger (and older) hippy photographers. On the other hand, the show is by no means a pity party -- it doesn't even remotely recall a Unicef campaign.
Many of Kohn's portraits are taken from far away, with a zoom lens, because he doesn't like posed portraits. When he is close enough to ask permission, he often does so nonverbally because he rarely knows the language of the people he's photographing. He holds up the camera as a way of asking. "If somebody says no or shakes their head, I just move on," he says. "There's too many other pictures to take. It's just not worth letting it get awkward."
Kohn started taking photographs because, when he and his wife traveled, he wanted to move faster than she did. "Taking photographs slows me down," he says. "It makes me look at things differently and look at things a little better."
One photograph, taken in China, depicts two people walking along a path, shot from above and at a distance. It's black-and-white, and the background is so soft that it looks like a charcoal drawing. Kohn says people ask him about this photo more than the rest of the show put together. But he's not sure how he did it. "It is an unaltered photo. It just came out that way. I'm not a professional by any means, but sometimes you can luck into a great shot. If you take a lot of photographs, you increase your odds."