At 29, Philadelphia-based photographer Michael M. Koehler produces work that’s strikingly nuanced with life experience, colored by extensive travel and a practiced understanding of how to make a beautiful image. In Between, his exhibition currently on display at Get This! Gallery through Saturday, October 29, 2011, documents urban landscapes spanning from post-Katrina New Orleans, to Detroit, to Croatia, and back to his hometown, Philadelphia. Pulled from several years of shooting, the images describe a blue-collar underbelly from a perspective that feels less like an outsider peering in and more like an intimate afternoon spent with the people and environments he captures.
Despite the diversity of years and locations, the show feels unified. The cohesion is largely attributable to Koehler’s strong compositional sensibility and the softness of the works’ grainy finish. The idiosyncrasies of each city Koehler captures take on a similar connectedness. Decrepit stuffed animals lining a Detroit porch in the Heidelberg Project neighborhood feel as much a part of Koehler’s life as the streets of Philadelphia. The opening line of his artist statement sincerely claims, “In Between is life.” The simplicity and sincerity of this statement is clear throughout the exhibition.
Katrina Memorial, Shell Beach is one of the show’s strongest images. The photograph depicts a heavy-set, African American woman standing at the edge of a marsh next to a small, memorial-like pile of cobbled rocks. It’s unclear whether the woman was the creator of the memorial or just a visitor, but either way the scene feels intimate. The setting for the image is of Shell Beach in St. Bernard Parish which saw almost 160 casualties during the storm and its aftermath. The warmth of the silver gelatin print lends itself well to the somberness of the image.
The most successful images are those where Koehler’s engagement seems to transcend that of the passive observer to a participant in the scene. Images such as Before the Storm, which shows locals during New Orleans’s evacuation for Hurricane Gustav, and Fireplace, which captures a women standing inside a fireplace to smoke a cigarette, are both emotive and reflect Koehler’s presence in the scene. Since it is his engagement with his subject matter that gives strength to the work, the compositions without human figures lose some of their potency despite the prettiness of the imagery. Koehler’s exhibition presents an honest, personal archive of the human experience.
Michael Koehler’s exhibition, In Between, is on view at Get This! Gallery through this Saturday, October 24, 2011.