Twenty-nine-year-old Philadelphia-based photographer Michael M. Koehler is a bit of a rambler. His black-and-white images unfold in a variety of places: Detroit, New Orleans, Costa Rica, Italy and his native Philadelphia.
But despite the far-flung locations, national and regional boundaries often seem to wash away when seen through his lens. Like the photographer Sylvia Plachy, Koehler has a humanist bent and a worldly-wise outlook that carries over from shot to shot no matter where and what he is shooting. A young photographer with tremendous observational talent, he also has an eye for the poignant, peculiar dimensions of human nature that have a way of making the world seem very small.
In the solo show In Between at Get This! Gallery through Oct. 29, Koehler presents grainy, warmth-infused silver gelatin images filled with affection for his diverse subjects and the periodically enchanted quality of ordinary life.
As a rule, Koehler does better when he zeroes in on his sweet spot: people. There are two singularly creepy studies of a New Orleans classroom map of America marked by a flood water line and a stuffed animal-festooned exterior of a decaying Detroit home in the bizarre "Gone Home." Both of these hum with energy and meaning, but other depopulated shots, such as the fishing boat in "Seek Shelter" or a dirt road illuminated by a shaft of light in "Smoke in the Jungle" feel listless and wanting. They are overshadowed by Koehler's superior renditions of the quality of pathos and beauty that can often coalesce in images of the human experience.
In "The Blessing," Koehler shoots a barber in an African-American barber shop in Philadelphia. He is placing his hand over a customer's eyes in a manner that suggests benediction. The image expresses something of the gift of a healing touch, the intimacy and the ritualistic appeal of the barber shop or hair dresser.
In the delightfully off-kilter "Fireplace," a woman stands inside a baronial fireplace in Montalcino, Italy, escaping into its cavernous chimney for a smoke. Her head is cut off inside the fireplace, but its absence is made up for by the arrangement of images on the mantle: an oil painting of a woman and an image of a dog that serve as substitute faces. A similar sense of buoyant whimsy infects the lovely "Ascending," shot in Croatia, in which a boy on a concrete dock watches as another one, about to plunge into the water below, is for a moment deliciously suspended in mid-air.
Not all of Koehler's exhibition is reducible to an idea of "expectation," but there is enough of it to suggest at least a leitmotif. The work epitomizes the photograph's ability to instill wonder and invite speculation about the moment that comes next. The heart-stoppingly lovely "St. Bernard Parish" is one such image, of a little boy and girl seen from behind sitting in a toy car in a large grassy meadow sandwiched between a group of houses. You feel a powerful sense of expectation, as if the children are about to set forth on some fateful journey. The image speaks volumes about childhood anticipation: the desire for adventures, for adulthood, for the places their imaginations will take them next.
Life is strange and wonderful and Koehler has the photos to prove it.