MICHAEL KOEHLER (1964 - )
ART ::: PHOTOGRAPHER
ďI am a photographer. This is my life. I don't just pull out a camera and start shooting. I was the kid with the Mohawk. I was a punk. I wasn't running around with a camera around my neck 24 hours a day. These are from the timeline of my experience and life. There was no rush to expose these classic moments. I wasn't stealing souls. Sometimes it would take years to find the right moment.Ē
Michael Koehler is about to share twenty-five years worth of iconic Provincetown photographs with the rest of the world. The collection spans 1990-2015 and features the characters who have kept the spirit of Provincetown alive; the old school Provincetown that has slowly become a distant memory. Though many of the subjects are alive and kicking, vibrant and relevant, we are also transported to moments in time when locals - like Popeye (Morris) led parades in his sailor suit waving to the crowds and Butch walked Commercial Street in his motorcycle helmet rushing to make bar rush at Spiritus - still roamed the earth.
PHOTOGRAPHY AS ART
In the grand scope of the history of art, photography is a relatively new form. Everyone's a photographer these days. Just pull out the cellphone and point and click.
Mankind (and women too) has been drawing pictures for thousands of years. Before the advent of paper and pen, the walls of caves would be suffice but back in the day there was no Kodak-toting crazy cousin following you around to tell you to smile. The earliest photography equipment was cumbersome and used primarily as a tool to chronicle persons and places. Early photo shoots could be especially painful and awkward for the subject who would be forced to sit still for unnatural amounts of time. By the turn of the century, it became apparent that some people were taking their work quite seriously. The work of people like Edward S. Curtis - the man who captured the images of the great Native American tribe members - was a tell-tale sign of what was to come.
Provincetown was fortunate to have Carl Van Vechten bopping around town for its 1915-16 heyday. Many of the only existing photos of the original Provincetown Playhouse, the plays and the surrounding characters are his handy work. By the 1920s, dabblers in the medium such as Man Ray began expanding the definition of what a photograph was. Seemingly overnight one's lens mastery mixed together with a little dark room voodoo could produce a work of art worthy of any gallery's wall space.
Meanwhile back in Provincetown, somewhere around 1980s an impressive array of washa-shores began arriving from the Long Island enclave of Babylon.
MLTV: What is the biggest difference between Babylon, NY and the Gardens of Babylon in Mesopotamia?
MK: Wow. Youíve been doing your homework. No rules. Everybody either came from broken homes, you know, the kids with no future whose parents were divorced or they had the half a million dollar yacht in the backyard on the canal. There were the two different worlds but we all hung out together. The one rule was having a good time no matter what the cost.
MLTV: So I take it that your Dad wasnít around much.
MK: They got divorced when I was probably 10. It was Kramer vs. Kramer; Koehler vs. Koehler. Whereís the child support check? I come back from college and heís back on the couch with the remote watching TV like thirteen years never happened. They got back together and are now happily remarried in Florida.
MLTV: Music and art around the house?
MK: I was the youngest of four boys so I got exposed to music from my older brotherís record collections. Frank Zappa, 70s rock, George Carlin. I believe that my first albums were Elton Johnís Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Barry Manilow Live. There was music in the house but no instruments. The music came from my brothers not the parents.
MLTV: So why are you such a punk?
MK: Wow. I got heavily into the metal scene. I am a huge fan of Randy Rhodes, Sabbath and Ozzy. I had all the metal buttons on my denim jacket. AC/DC. Bon Scott. Then I befriended these two brothers who had moved from Smithtown to Babylon. Black Flag. White Flag. Anti-Flag. Uh, Anti-Flag might have come later but Suicidal Tendencies, Nihilistics, Agnostic Front. We would sit there in their bedroom after school listening to records and I was just a sponge. We found out that there was a venue a half-hour train ride away going toward the city in Freeport, Long Island. As soon as the music hit I went right into the pit.
Punk was more like something you listened to while in hardcore we were jumping on stage and singing along with the band. I was much more of a hardcore kid. I really didnít give a shit which is pretty punk rock and I acted like a punk so I guess I am a punk after all. We hit up the all-age matinees at CBGBs.
MLTV: What years?
MK: Iíd say that would have been from 1984 through Ď86. In the summer of my junior year of high school I was shipped out to stay with my brother in Connecticut because I started getting in trouble with the law. I had my Mohawk then and bang, I immediately found the punk scene at the Anthrax club in Norwalk.
MLTV: How did a hardcore punk rock kid from Babylon end up in Provincetown?
MK: The Babylonians. The Babylon connection.
We were the five amigos. The burnouts from Babylon High who hung out at school, after school, whatever. We were inseparable. One of those kids, Thor, had gone to Provincetown for the summer and when he was relating all these stories to us, it was like he was speaking to me in a foreign language. He had found a girl up there and he stayed in the same bed with her and her father was cool with it. He had pictures to prove it.
I was like, ďI have to go to this place called Provincetown and get myself a girlfriend,Ē and off I went.
MLTV: Were you already into photography while still in high school?
MK: I was actually kicked out of my first photography class for fighting. I had been irking the teacher for months. I was not a pleasant kid to teach. I was hyperactive and I was lawless. I was the class clown and it had lots of consequences. I definitely never learned my lesson.
MLTV: Did you have your own camera?
MK: My motherís Nikon FG. I still have it. Iím looking at it on the shelf in front of me right now. She bought it for a Florida vacation and of course it sat in the case for a while but I didnít pick it up at first. My brother, who is six years older than I am, had a dark room though. Iíd be in there checking temperatures and spinning film tanks for agitation. It was basically grunt work with no happy ending. Thatís when I got the big itch.
I had to document stuff. There was no stopping. I still donít know why - especially in the state of mind I was in.
At first for me it was working on the yearbook committee, class work assignments and then off to community college. It meant a lot in one way to be doing that sort of shit but on the other hand it really didnít mean anything to me. I never really carried a camera around until I got to Provincetown.
MLTV: So you never really had any formal training per se.
MK: No? Hell, no. I learned at R.I.T. (Rochester Institute of Technology). I studied commercial photography. I studied portrait and landscapes.
MLTV: Were you taking pictures at the hardcore shows at the time?
MK: Music was more important to me than documenting the scene. Sometimes I just want to experience things. I wanted to be in the pit. I wasnít happy unless I had a bloody nose and a black eye.
MLTV: Letís get back to Provincetown. I want to understand a little more of the process of what it took for you to get there. Itís obviously summer and you are on the tail end of your high school years.
MK: I asked my mother for $80 and Thor and I headed out to Orient Point, the northern tip of Long Island so we could catch the New London Ferry to Connecticut. We got there the night before and slept on the rocky shore near the docks. When we woke up the next morning, the ferry was being loaded and people were looking at us like we were a couple of vagabonds. We woke up soaked from the fog on the Long Island Sound and it starts pouring rain as we climbed onboard. We hopped a Greyhound to Providence, Rhode Island and then hitchhiked to Hyannis.
My first vision of Provincetown is still tattooed to the inside of my mind - coming over the hill in North Truro and seeing the harbor and the monument. The rain had stopped around the time we got to Hyannis. When we got to Provincetown the sun came out. As cheesy as it sounds it was like it was meant to be. Beers and sunset and beautiful women. Thereís nothing better and thereís still nothing better!
We went straight to 128 Commercial Street because Thor had painted the house the year before in trade for a room. There were people on the porch but no one seemed to recognize Thor or any of the Babylon names he was throwing around so we dropped off our bags and headed out to the breakwater. While we were walking a VW Bug pulls up and itís Miss Molly Magill and Abbie. They told us they were going to sunset at Herring Cove. Molly recognized Thor and we were in!
I look back over twenty years later and I felt like - and I still feel the same way - that I had arrived in the Land of Misfit Toys. Everything I had ever learned had been turned upside down.
MLTV: How did you survive once you got to Provincetown?
MK: I ended up crashing on the floor in one of the Babylonian rooms which was also a kitchen. They had to step over me to wash dishes and cook dinners. When it was nice out we had a tent in the dunes on the West End. Throughout the years I lived in abandoned shacks off of Harry Kemp Way and camped in the dunes off of Snail Road. All I really needed was dry sneakers, surf shorts, sunglasses and a bike. I did dishes at the Lobster Pot just like any other Babylonian. I was a dish dog. Every morning we would wake and bake and then someone from "the Pot" would stop by to see who wanted to work that day.
MLTV: Were you hanging around the Shop Therapy crew from the get go?
MK: No. Not at all. There were all these different tribes. The Lobster Pot. Spiritus. Blasť. Mojoís. I was afraid of Shop Therapy. When the hip hop kids came into the East End of town I stayed on the West. Someone would say, ďWe are going over to Ronnyís.Ē I was like, ďI am not going over there. They are crazy.Ē
I just steered clear.
MLTV: Do you have pictures from that summer?
MK: I was living the life and working triples. I'm a delinquent. That's just the way I am built. I was always punishing myself. Then the winter came and we were like what are we going to do. Then came the grind back to reality. I knew what I needed to do. I had no grades. I had to start at the bottom. I had only taken Photo I in High School. I ended up at Hamden Paier College of Art and lived in the photography house across the street from the school.
For drinking money we started throwing hardcore shows in the basement. We were bringing in bands from New Haven. There were three kegs and three bands for five bucks.
MLTV: Any pictures?
MK: I still hadnít developed my craft. I really spent more time developing film and shooting for assignments. But it was then that I made a conscious effort to get to R.I.T.
One of my teachers at RIT was a guy named Dan Larkin. When I started looking at his work I realized that his landscapes were from Provincetown. They were these amazing photographs and I was inspired. I was like, ďHow can you not be a good photographer in Provincetown. Shit just happens right in front of you in the best light in the world.Ē
I went to work for my Associates Degree in photography. That included a semester abroad in Salzburg, Austria where they filmed the Sound of Music. The school was actually in the old horse stable. The studies leaned toward fine art photography. Out-of-focus, blown-up and out was the norm. The teacher was so impressed with one student's high contrast images but it made no sense to me. I thought the guyís work sucked. I took off to Amsterdam and stayed at a hostel named the T-Anchor. For rent I would wake up at 3AM and go to the train station to find English speaking travelers and recruit them to stay at the Anchor. During the day I would take them over for the Heineken Brewery tours and to the many cafes.
I tried to quietly return to the dark room in Salzburg weeks later hoping they didnít notice that I had disappeared. The Dean came in and was baffled at what I was doing there. "I am a photographer. I'm photographing." I went from Austria to fishing in Cape Cod.
MLTV: So what finally set you on track? It seems like you were kind of rudderless?
MK: Artists like Arnie Charnick, Lola Flash, Doug Slade and the clothing of Sarah Kane. I was intrigued by the way they operated and how they did their own thing. There were thousands of people coming through Spiritus Pizza seeing their work every night on the walls. I wanted people to invest in my art one day too. All of these people, all of the artists, were part of Spiritus and I wanted to be accepted as one of them.
I always admired Arnie and his work ethic. All I wanted to do was to hang my work in Spiritus. It became one of the goals in my life. I was observing and seeing him do it. I remember when one of his great works - the filmstrip piece - a brilliant documentation of a stroll from the East End to the West End of Provincetown - was anted-up in one of Ptown's legendary gambling parlors. Thousands of dollars in art were regulary lost and won. I was always interested with what he was up to and watched how he operated under the radar.
I was fascinated with other peopleís work too. Artists like Dr. Dread who was selling his work on the streets. He was making a living off of the art or at least that was my perception. He was creating art by recycling people's trash. He was painting on old window panes.
But Arnie never cared about catering to the hoity-toity and he stayed true to himself. When you stop and look at his work it has a cartoon element but look at the shading. Look at his black and white work. I love his approach to his work. He shows up here for the summer. He contemplates and he commits.
MLTV: So that was your transition into gallery work? Spiritus Pizza?
MK: Actually I worked in the winter for years in New York City at a printing lab in Chelsea and there was all these environments I discovered in the old buildings there so my first shows were actually these DIY (Do It Yourself) happenings that I put together where all the proceeds went to me.
MLTV: When you finally had your work hung in Provincetown, what did the show consist of?
MK: I was subconsciously building a body of portrait work. Popeye (Morris). Butch. Franco. Ronny Hazel. Tony Jackett. Jonathan Morrill. Ashley Cabral. Matt Millett. Most importantly I was capturing a lifestyle. It became a hodge-podge of local relics and wash-a-shores.
These are straight up characters. I didnít do it to sell photos. It really built itself.
I remember taking a piss one night in Ronny Hazelís bathroom and there was one of Arnieís 3D collages on the wall. He was using magazine clippings in the piece but it told a story and realized thatís what I wanted to do in my photography. I wanted to create a story with just one picture and that is really what began the process of my book.
MLTV: How is the book constructed? Are the photographs accompanied by stories?
MK: I might add a few stories but itís really cover to cover photos. Art quality work spanning 1990 -2015.
MLTV: Do you see those years or that period having a name that can be applied to it?
MK: Not really. I see these years being more of waves of endless invasions. The SUNY Purchase invasion with confident women like Laurengello who showed up with their thrift store t-shirts really kind pre-grunge bunny. Daddy Rabbitís Boston Invasion with all the Boston bike messengers arriving by ferry. The Brooklyn Invasion.
MLTV: So is that what will be on your gravestoneÖ. Michael Koehler: Portrait Photographer?
MK: I created a mural for a show a couple of years ago at the original Cassandra Complex. It got moved from the gallery into the Underground Bar. I started working on creating an environment and capture a lifestyle and a setting. I began presenting more information introducing contact sheets, wood, shells and clippings but that mural is a second generation collage with a moisture problem.
It was then that I began experimenting with uncontrolled environments. I was moving away from the traditional, technical world and I started fucking with my work. One winter I started exposing my work to the elements. What would happen to an archival print if I put it in a puddle and it froze? What would happened if I buried a photograph and waited to dig it up in the spring? I would go outside in the middle of the night and bury my photos under snow and ice. I had them buried all over the place. Every hour I would go back outside and add another layer of water and photographs. While leaving for work early one morning my wife backed over my masterpiece while leaving the driveway for work. This is what became the mistake process.
If I didnít get out early enough during the day and it warmed up a little bit the photos would be blowing across the street. The neighbors would be showing up at my house and asking me, ďIs this your nude?Ē
Then I started burying them with metal to see what would happen. Rust building up and creating chemical reactions. Burying scrap metals with a top layer of soil and when earth is frozen it begins expelling emulsions. So now not only was I experimenting with how long something is exposed but what actually happens. I discovered that I could create all these crazy patterns Ė not constricted.
This is the direction that my work is heading toward today but everything has been put on hold. I am still creating a bit I am concentrating on putting together my book on Provincetown. It will be available in the summer of 2016. This winter it is going to press. My vision is to have a fine-art coffeetable book that everybody loves, shares and owns. It's a piece of art like Vivian Maier who was a nanny who did street photography for years but was discovered after she died. Her work is mystical and amazing.
The book is a historical documentation of the underbelly of Provincetown. It is my gift back to the characters who made this town. Today's Provincetown has become very lions and tigers and bears, oh my, which is cool too but the people today don't even remember this time. The fishing is depleted. The town is no longer anchored. The Portuguese families sold off their properties for ridiculous amounts of money.
I just hope that someday there will always be an opportunity for some 16-year-old knucklehead to show up here and connect and be able to rent a room and survive here for a season. There needs to be a dynamic for him to find the means to survive because growing up here never had anything to do with money. I didn't start taking pictures with the idea of making money. If money comes my way that would be great but I never cared about the money. I did it for the art.
Enjoy the gallery below. Click on any image to enlarge.
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