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.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia