It's in the Air
Photographer R. Skip Kohloff is well known in Denver, but he only rarely exhibits his work. In fact, déjà-view: A Retrospective Exhibition: R. Skip Kohloff, on display at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center (CPAC), is one of the only solos he's had during his thirty-year career and the largest presentation of his work ever mounted. But Kohloff has exhibited in group shows over the decades. "There hasn't been a year since I started in the 1970s that I haven't exhibited," he says. "But it's mostly been a few images here, a few there -- nothing like the 95 pieces in this show."
Born in 1941 in the Bronx, Kohloff worked at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair after graduating from high school. "It was one of those deals where I got paid for doing nothing," he remembers. "So I hung out in a brass-rail bar next to the Denmark Pavilion where I met Liz." Liz is Kohloff's wife, Lisbeth Neergaard Kohloff, also well known in Denver as a historian of photography who teaches at the University of Colorado at Denver and as center coordinator at CPAC.
A few years after the World's Fair, Kohloff enrolled at York College at the City University of New York as a fine-art major with interests in painting and sculpture. But York had just started a photography program, and Kohloff took a class. "I was terrible at first" he says. "I was so taken by the technical aspects of it all, I really blew it. In my first photo class, my instructor said, 'Are you sure you want to be a photographer?' Well, I was sure I didn't."
Then, on his own, Kohloff began to do research in the library on photography. "I found Betty Hahn and Jerry Uelsmann, and it changed my life," he says. Kohloff switched his major to photography and went on to the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he earned his MFA in 1975.
After leaving school, Kohloff taught classes at a variety of colleges in upstate New York, including RIT. "I had three part-time jobs, trying to make a full-time living," he says.
In 1977, he got a call from the vice principal of Cherry Creek High School asking him to come to Colorado to restructure the school's photography department. "Nobody gets an MFA to teach high school," says Kohloff, "but the money they were offering me was better than what I was making teaching college." He took the job, but on the condition that he would stay only two years, enough time to get the refitted department up and running. Two years stretched into more than two decades, however, with Kohloff finally leaving the school just this week. "Cherry Creek is a wonderful place," he says. "There's always been administrative support for the arts, even in hard times."
In 1978, shortly after he'd arrived in Colorado, Kohloff joined CPAC, a volunteer organization with the aim of promoting photography as a fine art. A few years later he was elected to the board, and in 1986 he became the group's president, a position he still holds. He's only the fourth president in CPAC's nearly forty-year-long history.
The idea for déjà-view came from CPAC member and city art administrator John Grant. "At first I wasn't sure," Kohloff says. "I talked with Liz about it, and she said it might be interesting to have someone else look at my work -- a disinterested third party, so to speak. Until now, Liz was the only person who saw all of my work, and she'll hate me for saying this, but she's always been my harshest critic."
Grant culled the 95 images in the Kohloff show from the hundreds of photos and photo-based pieces Kohloff has done since his days at York College. In fact, the show begins with a print of a group of contact sheets that display those first failed efforts. And since the show has been hung in a strictly chronological order, it's easy to read Kohloff's stylistic development over the decades.
Interestingly, the show reveals that Kohloff, despite a relentlessly experimental approach, has been working on essentially the same compositions and conceptual frameworks since he was a student. "A thread that runs through my work -- it's a cliche, really -- is my love for the mystery and magic of light," Kohloff says. This interest in the effects of light is first seen in some of the oldest photos. Nearly everything Kohloff's done has been done as a part of a series, and individual photos from these series are left untitled. Kohloff feels titles are leading, and he wants to avoid that.
The first series is "Spherical Silhouettes," a group of silver prints from 1972-73 that concerns shadows cast onto the ground. The objects, mostly street signs, aren't seen in the photos; instead, the photos record the streets and sidewalks in New York on which the shadows play. Recording shadows and using one image (a shadow) evocative of another (a sign) are themes Kohloff has addressed again and again.
On his way to Aurora in 1977, Kohloff made a detour to Santa Fe, where he created the "In Another Light" series. These silver prints are bold, almost abstract compositions that focus on the contrast between black shadows and the overlit backgrounds -- literally another light than the one he was accustomed to in New York. Across from this series are several silver prints from the "Elbert County" series done in 1979-1980. In these photos, Kohloff shoots crumbling and humble buildings under the glaring light of the mid-day sun.
The silver prints of the "Found Objects" series from the early 1980s directly readdress the concerns he started with in "Spherical Silhouettes." But now, out West, the shadows are more emphatic and almost calligraphic, especially in the case of the one that shows the winter shadow of a bare tree against the sidewalk. The compositions in this series are very abstract, and the actual details of the outdoor scenes are simple enough to recede as key components. The idea of abstract imagery made from actual objects is also seen in "Fabrication Sites," chromogenic prints of construction scenes where the shadows and the objects that cast them make linear and geometric compositions.
The show also includes two open-ended series that Kohloff has been working on for more than ten years: "On a Different Wavelength," made up of hand-tinted infrared silver prints, and "Oaxaca Portfolio," which comprises toned silver prints. "Oaxaca" shows the buildings of the Mexican city and various objects around town ranging from religious statues to folding chairs to a display of women's shoes. There are no people here (or in most of Kohloff's other work). "I like to suggest the presence of people by showing the things they use," he says.
The CPAC exhibit is a revelation, and as Grant has written, Kohloff "has quietly created an important body of work which can only be rivaled by his contributions to the photographic community." I couldn't agree more.
Another transplanted New Yorker, Allen Birnbach, is the subject of his own photo solo, The Last Cattle Drive: A Photographic Documentary by Allen Birnbach, at Cherry Creek's Gallery M. Birnbach may be from Queens, but, as this show reveals, he's obviously gone native since coming to Colorado in 1974.
Gallery M just moved to one of the most distinctive buildings in Cherry Creek, at 2830 East Third Avenue, and gallery owner Myrna Hayutin calls the exhibit "the first picture show at our new space." The distinctive two-story building, designed in the 1960s by Richard Crowther, was originally constructed as the architect's office. Crowther, one of the city's most accomplished modernist architects, is retired.
Sadly, no original details of the building's interior survive save for the fenestration. These nice features include the two oversized, north-facing dormers that flood the gallery's interior with soft light, and the clerestory windows of the atrium, also original to the building. The Birnbach show has been installed in the south gallery just to the left of the staircase entrance and atrium.
For thirteen years, Birnbach has been periodically recording the activities of the Cogan Ranch in the Arkansas Valley, and the show's title refers to the fact that rancher Joe Cogan is retiring. The show includes a candid photo of Cogan.
The results of Birnbach's labors are a series of photographs, some in very large thirty-by-forty-inch formats, that capture the cowboys at the ranch, which is set in the magnificent Western landscape. The atmospheric conditions seem to be Birnbach's true interest, from the dim light of dawn seen in "Winter Feeding No. 10" to the hazy plein-air effects of many other pieces, including "Cattle Drive No. 8," one of the oversized prints.
In "Cattle Drive," a group of four cowboys mounted on horseback are herding cattle in the mid-ground. The low cloud ceiling and the dust being kicked up by the horses and cattle delicately veil the mountains in the distance.
All of the photos were printed by Birnbach himself using a process in which carbamide toner has been employed as a bleaching and redeveloping agent. The results are not unlike sepia-toned photographs, but the carbamide-toned silver prints are brighter and more golden in color.
When I saw the show a few days before it opened, the gallery was in a frenzy of preparation, and remodeling was far from finished. "We'll be done by the opening come hell or high water," Hayutin said. Well, ready or not, they opened last Friday.
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