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Culture & Artsby Fern Shen1:30 pmNov 7, 20170

Unscripted moments: The photographs of Joseph Kohl

New show at the Maryland Historical Society captures bohemian Baltimore in the ’80s and ’90s

Above: Photographer Joseph Kohl caught the strangeness and sizzle of a more raw time in Baltimore. (Maryland Historical Society)

The Schaefer, Schmoke and O’Malley eras in Baltimore weren’t only about tourists at the Inner Harbor, freshly-painted “City That Reads” benches and guitar-strumming proto-governors.

There were political protests, surreal sidewalk scenes and animal curiosities. And after hours, there was the edgy world of sex workers, BDSM play and underground music.

Photographer Joseph Kohl captured it all in a breathtaking body of work, the subject of a show opening this week at the Maryland Historical Society: Unscripted Moments: The Life & Photography of Joseph Kohl.

Shooting for the News-American, City Paper, Afro-American, Village Voice and countless other publications, Kohl worked in Baltimore in the 1980s and 1990s, chronicling Baltimore’s underground culture and marginalized communities with deep respect.

The city’s erotic sub-communities, small-venue rock concerts and more, documented by photographer Joseph Kohl. (Unscripted Moments: The Life and Photography of Joseph Kohl at the Maryland Historical Society)

The city’s erotic sub-worlds, its small-venue rock concerts and more were documented by photographer Joseph Kohl. (Unscripted Moments: The Life and Photography of Joseph Kohl at the Maryland Historical Society)

His portraits of friends, models, and strangers are a highlight of the exhibition.

“I hope that people will see what Joe Kohl realized: Baltimore is a unique and beautiful place, but almost never in ways that you would expect to find something beautiful,” said Joe Tropea, curator of films and photographs at the Maryland Historical Society.

Cosmopolitan, Compassionate

Born in Fort Belvoir, Va., but raised in Odenton, Kohl began working in photojournalism at the Baltimore Sun while he was still an undergraduate at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

After college, he worked for a plethora of diverse publications but produced a body of work that reflected his own social life and personal curiosities – the city’s erotic sub-communities, its queer nightlife.

Kohl’s massive 55,000-piece photograph collection was almost lost after his untimely death in 2002 but was saved at the last-minute by exhibit co-curator Linda Day Clark and her husband, the late photographer Carl Clark.

Kohl’s special connection with marginalized people earned him the access and trust that was a key component of his work, co-curator Linda Clark said.

“He was known on the Block, he was known with groups of transsexuals, who trusted him and knew that they were safe with him. He had a sort of special access,” she said. “I don’t think anybody can just walk in and photograph the way that Joe did and have it be OK.”

Exhibition Co-curator J.M. Giordano, photo editor at Baltimore City Paper, described the Kohl’s work as a kind of time capsule:

“I loved seeing a period in time in Baltimore, the 80s and 90s, that’s fast becoming as historical as a 18th century painting,” he said.

Details for Unscripted Moments

Opening Party: November 9 at 6:30 pm at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 West Monument Street. Event featured DJ Landis Expandis, food by Baby’s On Fire chef Shirlé Hale-Koslowski and beer by Waverly Brewing Company. (Free but RSVP to gragsdale@mdhs.org)

Reception for Satellite Exhibition: November 17 at 7 p.m. at the Windup Space, 12 North Avenue. This free show, featuring photos not on display at the main exhibit, runs through November.

Check Maryland Historical Society website for hours and admission or call 410-685-3750.

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