by Lou Mancinelli
On his first day of college classes, two planes flew into the World Trade Center. There was fear and catastrophe on the streets of New York. One of Michael Koehler’s first responses was to document what was happening with his camera.
“I was thinking how, especially when I saw the towers fall, how things were changing and would never be the same,” said Michael, 32, a photojournalist raised in Germantown and Mt. Airy who now lives in East Mt. Airy and has exhibited his work at galleries and museums in New York, Rome and Philadelphia. “My camera became a way to digest the fear … to help understand.”
When he graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Performing Arts four years later, Michael took a job for $25 a day working on a book as a photographer. He crossed the country three times for the book, “Reaching Climax and Other Towns and Other Adventures Along the American Highway” (Ten Speed Press, 2006). Climax is a small town in Minnesota. Since then Koehler has made a career telling the story through pictures.
First he was a staffer for The Philadelphia Tribune and then the Philadelphia City Paper. His work has also appeared in numerous books like “Here Is New York” (Scalo Publishers, 2002) and magazines like Sports Illustrated. When The Local talked with him recently, he was in California and had just covered the Manchester United vs. Los Angeles Galaxy soccer game. One of his stories is a day in the life of one of the Galaxy players.
Koehler will present photographs from his book, “Seaside,” which documents the changing narrative of Seaside Heights in North Jersey from 2004 to 2012, right before Hurricane Sandy, at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane in West Mt. Airy on Thursday, Aug. 7, 7 p.m.
The photos have grown out of a personal relationship Koehler has with Seaside Heights, which he started visiting in high school. The Chestnut Hill Academy graduate met his wife, Lauren McGuire, whom he married in 2006, when he was 14. Her grandmother has a place in Seaside they went to before and after they were married. Hurricane Sandy nearly destroyed the town’s pier and decimated its coastline.
Koehler knew photos he’d taken the previous eight years could help “catalogue the memories as a way to help everyone get through this time of rebuilding.” (A portion of the book’s sales revenue will help support the New Jersey Hometown Heroes.)
Koehler has been able to make a steady living as a freelance photojournalist since getting out of college (no small feat). A year after Hurricane Katrina, he went to Buras, a small town along the Louisiana boot, to volunteer with Emergency Communities, a group that provided meals and shelter.
There were lots of young kids there living in a huge military tent on the spot that was the former “Y.” Their town had been destroyed. “What they really needed was for someone to listen to their story,” said Koehler, who listened for hours, recording the moments with his camera. “This was history … It was a place that was disappearing before our eyes.”
In 2008 Koehler returned to the Bayou with a faith group to help build homes near Saint Bernard Parish, a New Orleans neighborhood wiped away by the storm. There he met Ricky Robin a seventh-generation shrimper who had saved more than 100 people with his boat during Katrina.
“Robin was the best story-teller I ever heard,” said Koehler, whose collection of photos, “Along Bayou Road,” depicts that experience with little movies that go well beyond a moment in time.
Koehler was also in the Bayou when a BP rig exploded, spilling an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf Of Mexico in April, 2010. Koehler took pictures of the spill from a helicopter in the air. He dressed up like a worker and snuck around to take pictures on the ground. Those photos appeared in the City Paper.
“For me the camera is a way of going outside my comfort zone and connecting with landscapes and people,” he said. “It’s about the subject and myself getting into a space where we want to make something together.”