Anyone who has residual doubt to the question of whether photography is art should step into the Atlanta gallery of Parish Kohanim. The resounding answer, “Yes,” is obvious as you look at the images hung all around the fine-art space. While continuing his commercial work for a cross-section of Fortune 500 companies, the Canon Explorer of Light focuses much of his creative energies on self-assigned art projects. Whether commercial or personal, Kohanim’s distinctive painterly style comes through in every frame.
DPP: Where does your approach of creating photographs with a painterly look come from?
Parish Kohanim: I’m fascinated by painting and master painters—van Gogh, Rembrandt, Salvador Dali. Dali was an amazing painter, the way he hid figures in a painting was ingenious. I can’t paint or draw to save my life, but Photoshop is a great tool for me to create the feeling of those mediums and to express myself. It’s very time consuming, but, for me, it’s worth every minute and every second. Art in any form inspires you to do your own interpretation, and it’s the culmination of all the experiences we’ve gathered through our lives.
DPP: What are your roots?
Kohanim: Mine goes back to my childhood in Iran. I’m from Shiraz. When I was growing up, all the insanity that’s going on now wasn’t happening. My family spent a lot of time in nature. There were so many flowers and nightingales. The sky was a deep blue, and at night, you could see multitudes of stars and galaxies. That really became ingrained in my memory. When you’re a young kid, your radar is really receiving all those signals. When you grow up, you reflect that in so many different ways as an artist. Nature plays a significant role in my photographs. There’s nothing we humans can create that’s more beautiful than nature. That’s one of the things I like about Atlanta, it’s like a gigantic botanical garden.
DPP: When did you leave Iran?
Kohanim: I left in 1966 and came on my own to the U.S., to San Francisco, with $300 in my pocket. I hardly spoke English. I put myself through college working in a five-star restaurant while majoring in cinematography at San Francisco State, with a lot of classes in still photography and art. The professors absolutely hated my work because it had a tinge of commercialism in it. We have such double standards. If you look at Andy Warhol or Dali, they were commercial artists, as well. For some reason, the art world “forgave” their inclination toward commercialism.
DPP: Are there particular tools or techniques you use to achieve your signature look?
Kohanim: I used to use textures I created with paintbrushes, then would put them in multiple layers. I would blend the texture in the photograph in the blending mode to give it that painterly look. I’m not doing that anymore. Now I’m doing it with a clean photographic approach, but it still has the feeling of a painting. In most cases, I’m photographing the person in the studio, bearing in mind that I’m going to be placing them in an outdoor image. So I’m very cognizant of trying to achieve some sort of outdoor light in the studio, which will match that of the scene. When I go through my archive of photos, it’s just a matter of matching up the backgrounds with the image. There’s a bit of trial and error. The part of matching the two images together is vital to the success of the final image. I make the backgrounds a little more subdued so they don’t dominate the shot. Once I find the background that works, I spend a good deal of time masking the hair. If you’re making large prints, like I do, you really have to put in the time to make this work. Not doing it right loses the impact and destroys the image. Sometimes it can take a couple of days, especially with curly hair. I’m working on the image on a 4K monitor and getting incredible resolution, so every couple of hours, I walk away. Then I come back with fresh eyes. I think it’s very important to get this type of second opinion from yourself. Sometimes I’ll say, “No, no, no, this is way overworked,” and throw those layers out and start over again.
DPP: People who never worked in a wet darkroom might not have the feeling for some of the traditional techniques such as using the burn and dodge tools like those of us who would spent endless hours in there.
Kohanim: It’s so funny. I go back to my comfort zone and use those all the time. They’re very effective. The darkroom part of my career was very significant because it taught me how to slow down and think. It was meditative. It was easy to translate what I learned in the darkroom into digital printing, which was really an incredible asset.
DPP: What paper are you printing on these days?
Kohanim: Hahnemühle FineArt Baryta, Ilford Galerie Prestige Gold Fibre Silk and Canon Polished Rag. These are my three favorite papers that I go back and forth with. If the image is kind of moody, polished rag does a really good job with the black-and-white. I like more neutral tones, though I do some slightly toned images, as well. For instance, I converted one of my painterly photos into black-and-white in Photoshop and then gave it a bit of a tone, so I printed it on Hahnemühle. I use the Canon iPF6450 for prints 24 inches wide, the Canon imagePROGRAF iPF8400 for large prints 44 inches wide and the Canon PIXMA PRO-1 for smaller and quick 13×19-inch prints. The one thing I don’t use are papers that have textures because they compete with the photograph. Our papers are our canvases.
DPP: In addition to being inspired by artists of the past, you’re working with and being inspired by performance artists of the present.
Kohanim: I’m working on a book called Luminosa with Cirque du Soleil performers, which I hope to have out in two years. Most of the images are shot in my studio and converted to black-and-white. The background is black. I want to keep things simple. It’s about what these superhuman artists do. The performers have carte blanche. They keep saying, “Let’s make it harder.” They’re here from 9:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., four, five days in a row. They never complain about pain. They’re so disciplined, so committed. In my lectures, I talk about committed versus passionate. If you’re passionate about something and take no action, passion doesn’t go anywhere. If you’re committed and you have passion, you get results. These guys are just that. They’re committed to perfection. Once in a while, I would offer to switch hands in Photoshop if something didn’t quite work. “No, let’s do it again.” Most of these shots are done using Broncolor strobes with a flash duration of 1/5000th to 1/7500th of a second in order to freeze the action. That means I had to be totally synchronized with them. If I press the shutter a split second too late, they’ll be on the floor already. They have such a high level of artistry and perfection, it’s really inspiring and really energizes and inspires me. Our level of nonverbal communication is incredible. I don’t use any sort of infrared setup to trigger the shutter. I don’t let the computers or cameras or gadgets decide things for me. I don
’t think it’s a control thing, I just want to be synchronous with these performers.
DPP: How are you lighting the performers and the set?
Kohanim: Working with a 22-foot black background is like working with a black hole. All the light gets sucked into it, so I have to use a lot of light and to define the performers’ muscles and shape with rim lighting. That’s one thing I learned from nature. I really look at the quality of light and the direction of light. They’re on an acrylic ball—two or three of them sometimes—which I retrofitted with a strobe light inside. A lot of times, I try to simplify light. If you look at the earth, we have the sun as our one light source. And that light has so many personalities—warm, cold, hard light, soft light.
DPP: What’s the motivation for doing the work you do?
Kohanim: I never look at something and say I’m going to do something because I’m going to make “X” amount of dollars. I think of aesthetic rewards rather than financial rewards. You can’t put a price on aesthetic, the gratification and the joy it brings to you. It really grounds me as a human being. When I saw Sebastião Salgado’s The Salt of the Earth, I thought it was such an incredible, beautiful film. His mission was to show what collective insanity does to the world. He wakes us up to change the way we’re thinking and the way we treat each other. It wasn’t all doom and gloom. What he did at the end was great. He went back to where he grew up in Brazil and brought back the rain forest in an area that had been lost to farming. What a brilliant guy.
For me, ideas for new projects never stop. I’ve been doing photography for 30-plus years, and I’m more passionate now about doing new images than ever and discovering new ways to do them. I want to do things that I’ve never done before, but in the style that has been ingrained in me since childhood. Our brain chemistry is constantly changing. I’m not the person I was 10 years ago or even 10 days ago.
DPP: What cameras are you working with to express yourself?
Kohanim: I use the Canon EOS-1D X and Canon EOS-5DS R. I have no need to go to medium format anymore. The detail is amazing and the ability to shoot in extremely low-light situations with high ISOs is incredible. Sometimes the spontaneity tells a better story than slowing down to artificially light a scene. I see that in your photos. When we were shooting film, you couldn’t shoot in color above ISO 1000—it would fall apart. Canon is always trying to give us better tools.
That said, these days there’s so much emphasis put on technique. For instance, I’m sure there are some good applications for HDR, but too often it looks hokey and too contrived and fake. The primary objective of any photograph is to capture and initiate a reaction that elicits an emotion. There’s no technique that can do that. Sure, we have to know good techniques to get a good exposure. That’s understood. It’s like a violinist has to know all the technical aspects of how to play. But if he relies on the technical aspect of it too much, the artistry gets lost, with the result being a piece of music played without spirit.
DPP: You could play to a metronome and be right on, but if you’ve lost the feel, you’ve lost the music. In our profession, we could call it “photographic Muzak.”
Kohanim: Basically, we’re trying to express our own experiences and feelings through our camera, through the images we’re creating. I think that’s the goal of all artistic expression.
To see more of Parish Kohanim’s photography, visit parishkohanim.com/main.html.