“The World Through My Eyes” – Photographer Gary J. Kohn

For the past several years, we have been privileged to feature on Woman Around Town photos by award-winning photographer Gary J. Kohn. Gary, accompanied by his wife, Niki, has taken our readers to some far flung destinations, including Iceland, Mongolia, the Dead Sea, Japan, and Namibia and Botswana in Africa, to name a few. But he’s also shared his photos that have increased our appreciation of the beauty and history of our country. He’s taken us inside Ellis Island in New York, to Florida to marvel at the state’s bird population, and to enjoy a taste of the Old West, riding with ranchers in Wyoming. His breathtaking photos of flowers and animals bring us closer to nature. Whenever Gary picks up his camera, we know that something truly wonderful will happen. And we often benefit from his talent and inspiration.

On Sunday, January 20, Gary’s exhibition, “The World Through My Eyes,” had its opening at Joe’s Movement Emporium, in Mt. Rainier, Maryland. The show will run through February 28. Gary’s photos were artfully displayed on the studio’s walls and he treated those who came to a slide show featuring dozens of his photographs. We caught up with Gary afterwards so that he could share with our readers his thoughts about photography. 

Can you remember when you first discovered photography? Your very first camera and photo?
I recall having a brownie, but my clearest memory is of a Polaroid camera that was given to me as a Bar Mitzvah gift. I remember how much fun it was to get instant gratification when showing people prints I had taken of them only moments ago.

When did you decide to take your photography to another level?
During my high school and college years I had pretty much forgotten about photography. It wasn’t until shortly after Niki and I got married that I renewed my interest in photography. With a cheap camera in hand, we attended Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, but the camera broke. Little did we know that it was a metaphor for his upcoming presidency! After that, I invested in a better quality camera and began to take color slides. At one point, I had about 75 reels of slides collecting dust in a closet. It wasn’t until after our basement flooded that we decided to edit the collection and preserve only the best of what I now maintain were the worst! Going through those old slides was a source of great entertainment. It provided hours of laughter as we saw how dreadful these older photos were from an artistic point of view.

Gary’s flower photos at the exhibition at Joe’s Movement Emporium, Mt. Rainier, Maryland

Do you use both film or digital? Which do you prefer?
My earlier cameras were film, from which I had developed both as prints and slides. I never got into working in a dark room. As a child I had severe allergies to just about anything. Maybe I used that as a reason to avoid those messy chemicals! With the transformation to digital, I found a new passion for photography. I enjoy working with software to develop my photos, although I am now trying to simplify the process without using too much software, the companies continue to improve and innovate, so one must keep up with technology to improve skills and the quality of the photos.

What camera and lens do you prefer?
In the last few years I have undergone a transformation of my equipment. Rather than continuing to use Nikon gear, I began to notice that it was getting heavy and cumbersome, especially when hiking or doing travel photography. About 10 years ago, I attended a lecture at the National Geographic Society and met Jay Dickman, an NatGeo photographer and former Pulitzer Prize winner. He touted a system of lighter weight, high quality camera gear pioneered by Olympus. I was intrigued and soon after converted to the “mirrorless” cameras and lenses made by Olympus. Little did I know that years later I would become friends with Jay and tour with him to many of the exotic locations you see on my website.

Do you ever take photos with a phone?
It is often said that the best camera you own is the one you have with you at any particular time. And often times the camera on my iPhone is the only one that is available. I am not among those who always has my “big boy” camera with me, so the cell phone becomes my instrument of choice at that time. It helps that the quality of cell phone cameras is advancing so quickly. They have a long way to go, however, before they are able to duplicate the power of regular cameras.

Gary’s photo of a hippo in Botswana.  (See the story, “The Night Belongs to the Predators”)

You have traveled to some pretty exotic places to take photos. Do you have a favorite?
The world is full of so many wonders that it is impossible for me to pick a favorite, particularly because I have a fairly diverse set of interests. But if I had to choose, I would say that New Zealand is the most beautiful country we have visited. Having said that, there are so many amazing locations in the U.S. that one never need leave the country to view practically every kind of landscape imaginable. Part of the travels we take, however, is to meet, observe, and interact with the people who live in those exotic locations.

You have taken trips led by some well-known professional photographers. How does this work? Do you have to be semi-professional to go on one of these trips or can even beginners take advantage of the instruction?
The advantage to taking trips organized by professional photographers is that they essentially do your homework for you. For a successful photo shoot, it is imperative that you be in the right place at the right time. That requires a lot of research and organization. Additionally, you travel with like-minded people and often make new long-term friendships. All that comes with a price, however, as such trips are normally more expensive than if you design your own. You have to decide if the extra cost is worth the expertise you are hiring. Many of these trips are appropriate for photographers of all skill levels, while others require advance knowledge of how to use your equipment and process your photos.

What was the best advice you have received from another photographer on one of these trips?
These trips usually help you pick up tidbits on a variety of issues, but I think the best advice I have received over the years has been of a philosophical nature. For example, don’t take photos just to please others…you are your most important critic. In fact, one pro I know has gone so far as to declare what he has termed “photo celibacy.” He will not look at photos taken by anyone else, as he wants to maintain the integrity of his own style and vision. Others, however, swear that the best way to improve is to study others. I guess my approach is a little bit of each.

One of Gary’s photos taken in Mongolia (See the story.)

How do you approach people when you want to take their photo? Do you ever feel intrusive?
Some people have a natural ability to take photos of people “on the street.” They are perfectly comfortable with working with such folks. This is much more difficult to do when you do not speak the same language. To be honest, that is not my comfort zone. It is easier to do, however, using a telephoto lens and standing a good distance away. That approach is more comfortable for me, although I have had considerable success recently, especially working with indigenous people in foreign lands. Most people are glad to cooperate with you if you are polite, friendly, and show them the results on the back of your camera.

You often write captions for your photos. Why is that important for you?
Actually, the majority of my photos do not have captions. I reserve them for special occasions, such as when entering a contest, public displays, or publications. But they are fun to do. I like trying to come up with a tricky phrase. I also think that captions can add meaning and context into how the artist sees his or her work.

Gary’s photo of horses at Wyoming’s Absaroka Ranch (See the full story and photos.)

One of your photos (above) won an award from the Washington Post. What did that recognition mean to you?
Many artists have self-doubts about the quality of their work. While I recognize that I am my most important critic, I am like most others who feel their work is validated when it receives high recognition. So you can imagine the great satisfaction that I had “arrived” when informed that I placed third in the Post travel photography contest.

Exhibition at Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mt. Rainier, Maryland

How did your exhibition in Mt. Rainier come about? How did you feel about actually putting together a show of your photographs?
For several years now, friends and supporters have urged me to mount a solo photography exhibit, but I had resisted for a variety of reasons. Recently, however, I decided that it was time to take the plunge. I began to scout out venues that I thought might be appropriate for my needs. I had heard about Joe’s Movement Emporium. It is not a traditional gallery, but rather a community cultural center. This was the place for me, so I approached the director, Brooke Kidd, showed her some of my work, and she liked it enough to open their gallery space for me. Brooke has been terrific to work with. I am a great admirer of the important work she does in her community.

Some of Gary’s animal photos in the exhibition

Putting the show together was a lot of work. Out of thousands of photos, it was no easy task to pick out the 60 or so that I decided to display. I eventually settled on a theme, “The World Through My Eyes,” which enabled me to organize the process more easily. Placing the photos was a challenge, as well. While we had an idea of where we wanted to hang each photo, and had carefully measured the space in advance, it wasn’t until we arrived that we realized changes needed to be made. Fortunately, we enlisted the help of a young and talented artist, Matt McLaughlin, who was invaluable in helping place and mount the photos. The opening reception, which was snowed-out then rescheduled for Sunday, January 20, was another validation of my work, as about 140 people came to help me celebrate my work to date. I was overjoyed, to say the least.

A photo from Gary’s recent trip to Iceland (See the full story.)

You traveled to Iceland three times because you wanted to photograph the Northern Lights. Why was that so important to you?
Everybody now has a bucket list. Seeing the Aurora Borealis was near the top of our list. It just so happened that one of the better places to observe them, if the conditions are right enough for them to appear, is in a country of beauty and mystery, in short, a photographer’s paradise.

Does a great photographer have to be patient, waiting for that perfect moment that leads to an exceptional photograph?
The expression, “patience is a virtue,” is as true in photography as it is in all endeavors. There are some genres of photography where this is more true than others; for example, wildlife photography, where you wait for the subject to not only show up, but to commit to a compelling behavior of some kind. These moments are often the result of homework in advance, such as studying the behavior and patterns of certain animals. Then there are times when you get lucky and a photo op just happens.

A photo from Gary’s story on” Snow Birds” (See the full story).

What places are still on your list to visit?
The list is long! I really want to go Antarctica, with part of that trip including the Falklands and South Georgia Island; Patagonia; Greenland; a return to New Zealand and the Canadian Rockies; Alaska; somewhere for polar bears, etc.

Do you expect that your photography will continue to evolve? Would that involve technological changes or just a different way that you approach your craft?
I believe it was Arthur Greenspan that once said that if a business does not change it is doomed to die. That seems apropos to life, in general. So I will always strive to learn and improve. Some of that will involve technological changes or more innovative ways of using current technology, such as using drones with cameras to capture different vantage points.

I also suspect that my approach, and my vision will lead me down different paths.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to improve their photography?
For aspiring photographers, I would urge then to start slowly and learn the basics before spending a small fortune on equipment. And once they have their equipment, they should study it and practice with it as much as possible. And learn from others, even while trying to find their own vision.

Any plans to teach photography?
Although I have done some teaching, I am a better student than instructor. Perhaps part of that is because I enjoy solitude as part of my photography experience, and prefer to have my photos do my educational work. You never know, though…that may change.

For more information on Gary’s exhibition, “The World Through My Eyes,” at Joe’s Movement Emporium, click here.

To see more of visit Gary’s photos, visit his website.