Q&A: Joe Tropea of the Maryland Historical Society discusses the collection of Joe Kohl, who documented Baltimore's sexual underground in the '90s

Photographer Joe Kohl died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 44. A prolific photographer, contributor to City Paper, staffer at the Baltimore Business Journal, and unofficial chronicler of Baltimore's sexual underground, Kohl was welcome everywhere from strip clubs on The Block, to The Orioles, to private sex parties throughout the city. After Kohl's passing, his collection of work was donated to the usually staid Maryland Historical Society—imagine their reaction when they received a box of sexual deviants, drag queens, bound men and women, and the occasional hard-core porn shot. We sat down with the society's curator of films and photographs and digital projects coordinator, Joe Tropea, who's going through Kohl's sometimes-controversial work. 

City Paper: Though you didn't know Joe personally, can you give us a little peek into what the music scene was like in Baltimore in the '90s, when Kohl was shooting bands around town?

Joe Tropea: I was just starting to play shows with bands in the early '90s, so I don't really have much of the previous decade as a reference point. I remember it as much smaller then. You'd go to two or three shows a week at different clubs and basically see the same faces every time. So I think it was a much smaller group of people and I think there were less bands in the first half of the '90s. I also think the scene was more homegrown then with less transplants than we have today. Not to say that it was tiny or that MICA wasn't attracting new people to the music scene. It was a healthy scene with more great bands than I could possibly start listing here. Otherwise it was similar to today's landscape, a mix of above-ground clubs and underground spaces. I don't think anyone could argue that Joe Kohl's work captures a comprehensive view of the '90s music scene, but it's a unique view that captures segments of it perfectly. From what I can determine at this point, most of his band shots were by assignment. Many of those assignments came from City Paper.

CP: How did the museum acquire his work?

JT: The collection was donated by a photographer/friend of Kohl named Carl Clark after Joe died in 2002. I've never met Clark, but I would sure like to have the opportunity to talk to him about his friend. I have a lot of theories about Kohl from looking at this work that I'd love to have proved or disproved by someone who knew him well.

CP: What did you think when you first got a look at Joe's work?

JT: I first saw Kohl's work here in 2005 or '06 when I was in college and volunteering in the Special Collections department. It was kind of packed away in boxes in the basement, so I only got to see a tiny fraction of it. I think I remember seeing some nudes and shots of the band Monkeyspank. My first reaction was probably like, wow. That's unlike anything else I've seen here. I bet they have no plans to do anything with that any time soon.

CP: Can you put his work in context of the rest of the MdHS collection?

JT: Some people may not consider events that happened in the 1980s and '90s as history appropriate for a historical society to concern itself with, but I think everyone will agree that one day, these photos will be history from long ago. So in that sense, Kohl's work is as important as any photo collection we have at MdHS. As a prolific photojournalist who worked for institutions like City Paper, the Afro-American, the Village Voice, Catholic Review, and Easy Rider, Kohl's scope was wide enough to make it extremely valuable to historians and beyond.

CP: How are you archiving it?

JT: I'm currently working on rehousing it. It came to us in various boxes, bags, and plastic tubs. So it's most important to get it into appropriate-size protective boxes and an acid-free environment. The next step will be to identify as much of the work as possible—this should not be as difficult as with some other collections since most of Kohl's subjects are still among the living—and create a finding aid. At that point and along the way, we will look at digitizing some of the work.

CP: What advice would you give to photogs about their archives?

JT: The first thing I would say is, imagine yourself dead. Why did you create this work and what do you want to happen to it? If your answer is: to make bank and support my family after I am gone, then I am not the person you should be talking to. If your answer is: I just want the work to be out there, then you need to seriously and carefully consider who can look after it in the long term. The answer may not be your family, as people tend to move or live in houses that catch fire or flood. Speaking as someone who's had to deal with the aftermath of a life's work, I would say one of the most helpful things you could do would be to devise a system to record dates, names, and places (in that order of importance). You may not always get the names, but a date will be very helpful down the road for the person trying to figure your work out. Now that we are in the digital age, physically storing work is not the problem it once was, but if you do still shoot film, please store your work in sleeves and protective boxes. Better yet, write dates, names, and places on the sleeves. If you are working digitally, keep a simple spreadsheet on the drive where you store your work.

Check out a gallery of Kohl's work from the underground sex scene HERE.

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