By: Andrea F. Pagliai
At age 26, Michael M. Koehler is starting a new chapter in his life. His photography show “Parade” just opened in Philadelphia, his wife Lauren is three months pregnant, he is moving into a new apartment in the East Village, and he just shaved his six-inch-long beard for the first time in a year.
It took him five minutes to get ready this morning. He wears his typical green-toned camouflage hunting pants, a beige collared polo, and leather hunting boots. He has his Leica M6 film camera in a holster, strapped onto his belt. He rarely carries much else.
Koehler is a presence with his 6-foot, roughly 200-pound frame. His red hair does its own thing and he has three days worth of red stubble spread out along his strong features—A departure from his former mountain man’s red beard.
Because of photography, “I knew it was a good scene,” Koehler reminisces. With the garage door open, Koehler sat facing the wilderness of his father’s picturesque rural Philadelphia home. “I sat in a chair, with the dog in a chair next to me, and my father just started trimming my beard. He cut it all off into a drywall bucket. Meaningful, wise—Boom, the beard was gone.” He photographed the entire process.
It’s a beautiful day, one of this spring’s first. Koehler gets into a cab. The destination: Grand Central Station. The 11 a.m. light streams through the window onto Koehler. It has been a year since one could actually see his strong jaw line, let alone the rest of his face. The beard, “physically and emotionally, was another layer of distance between me and the world,” muses Koehler. It made sense at the time, but now it’s a new time. A new show. A new face.
He meets Peter Quillin, aka Kid Chocolate, a boxer Koehler has photographed for the past year. They plan to go to a Reptile Expo in White Plains, NY, where Quillin hopes to buy an African tarantula. Koehler goes along to make a moment into memory, a memory into art.
Koehler finds his focus through the lens of the camera. His distinct vision of the world around him, molded by the relationships in both his past and present, make his black and white photographs so entrancingly captivating.
After graduating in 2005 with a B.F.A. from NYU’s Tisch School of the Performance Arts, Koehler remained in New York to pursue his dream as a photographer. His new gallery show, “Parade,” which opened April 3, 2009 in Philadelphia, is a point of departure for both Koehler’s art and his personal life.
“The only way to be a different photographer, is to see differently,” says photojournalist Michael T. Regan.
Instead of seeing snakes and lizards, Koehler sees Quillin’s gentle interaction with nature. He looks through the tough boxer facade and sees the boy, lost in childlike curiosity.
The images he takes today, juxtapose those of Quillin stripped down, shadow boxing, muscles bulging, exuding power. “He is the finest physical specimen I have ever seen,” says Koehler. But, “I love capturing him with nature. It’s that contradiction between his powerful hands, which are like tools, and nature that is interesting,” says Koehler.
Koehler refers to a photograph of Quillin currently in “Parade.” The photograph shows Quillin, shirtless. His hand holds a small bird. The white bird cast against Quillin’s dark skin; the didactic contradiction of surrender and power; small and large, makes the image so powerful.
“His personality behind the camera separates him from the other photographers,” Quillin says. “Mike has got a lot of swagger, a lot of character, and a lot positivity.”
Regan agrees, “His enthusiasm for his life, his friends, his family, and his surroundings make Mike tick.” A mentor and a friend, Regan continues to see Koehler grow into a more professional photographer. “Mike has a unique vision that he always stays true to. That is what is great about his work. It is what sets him apart,” comments Regan.
In an age when the digital color photo takes over, Koehler, continues to work in a format that compliments the way he sees the world. Capturing a moment at standstill, he immortalizes the mundane, highlighting what would normally go unnoticed.
“I get a student like Mike, once every 10 years,” notes Koehler’s high school photography teacher, Pete Capano. Since the beginning, “Mike had the guts to take photos of strangers in situations that most high school students wouldn’t get themselves into. It’s impossible to learn or improvise, you’ve either got it, or you don’t. Its an inherent quality that he has,” says Capano.
His wife, Lauren Verrier McGuire , agrees. “He was always curious. Still is.” She adds, “Photography became the way he speaks. It is the way he communicates and the way he feels most comfortable communicating.”
This act of communication gives Koehler’s images a personal sincerity. “People trust and allow him to capture an image that other photographers wouldn’t be able to get,” says Capano. “I want to honor the person and make a compassionate image,” says Koehler. He confides, “I feed off the people I photograph. I need that connection.”
This is the case with “Parade.” A tribute to the Mummers Parade of Philadelphia, according to Capano, “it captures South Philly like nothing else.”
Every year thousands of mummers —masqueraded performers— storm the streets of South Philly in a tradition that is to Philadelphia like Mardi Gras is to New Orleans. It’s Venetian carnivale, meets Viking wedding. Mummers start singing, dancing, and drinking at 4 a.m. on Jan. 1. Koehler’s photographs document the past 15 years of the tradition. He has become a mummer in the process.
His life, his experiences, and his people make up his images. As his passion and his livelihood, Koehler depends on his photography.
“The camera is a home for him. He understands it; they have this relationship with each other,” McGuire explains. The images are so much a part of him because, “he photographs so true to his nature.” She laughs, adding, “probably because he is a horrible liar—there is no fake for him. His vision has not changed, he is just getting better at showing it to the world.”