PARADE OF SPIRITS, LIBERTY LANDS, VOICES: NEIL KOHL (talking to béla levin-dorko)
from the very first krampuslauf philadelphia in 2011, neil kohl has been there — with cameras. that first year, one of my favorite pictures taken from the whole event was of neil, who, at that point, was just “that nice, smiley guy.”
in subsequent years, neil has taken some of the best photos of our event, and even had a solo show at the beginning of 2015 at the random tea room!
when krampuslauf/parade of spirits 2015 came around, neil surprised us all by bringing not only a helper, but a large format polaroid camera — and taking some of the most AMAZING portraits ever. there are very, VERY few occasions in which i could say that an image made krampuslauf/parade of spirits look even more magical than it is in real life, but, well, a lot of neil’s did.
are we waiting for the exhibit? heck yes, we are waiting for the exhibit. in the meantime, my son, who likes to know how things work, had a great time talking to neil about his cameras. there are some noisy, windy sound artifacts on this interview, as some of it was conducted out in the yard, which my son has told me a number of times “is bigger than ours”.
listen to the conversation as it is embedded below, or on soundcloud.
BLD: Hi! My name’s Béla and I am interviewing Neil.
How did you first get started with Krampuslauf?
NK: Well, a few years ago, our neighbor Janet, told us about this parade, where people would make things and then go and march around, and she told us about the Krampus, and it sounded really cool! So our family went! And I took some pictures the first year, and that’s when Janet had her amazing coat of bones… it was there from the beginning.
BLD: Before you got started with Krampuslauf, were you still taking pictures a lot at different festivals?
NK: Not so much at different festivals, no, but just taking pictures of things around the neighborhood, mostly.
BLD: And… if you’re using a big camera, and you needed the light, do you mostly use that light – the light that you can adjust?
NK: Different cameras need different amounts of light. So the smaller cameras that I can carry around, those can practically see in the dark. So I can follow the parade, I can take pictures, and I don’t have to use a flash. But the big camera that I used last year (to create the Polaroids –ed.) – the film is very very slow, so it’s not very sensitive to light, and you need a LOT of light to get a good picture. And, it’s nighttime! By the time I was finished taking pictures, it was dark. So I have that flash, which can pump out a lot of light, and I actually had that turned all the way up. That’s probably the only time that I’ve had that flash turned all the way up, because it’s such a bright flash.
BLD: When you took a picture of me and… whoever else was in it (his sister – ed.), I was kind of also squinting because it was really, really light.
NK: Right. So there’s the light that’s on all the time, and I need that to focus the camera. I need some light so I can look through the camera and see if everything’s sharp, and then the flash is what is actually used to take the picture.
BLD: So the flash is used for like… these small cameras, does the flash come —
NK: Yup. That one has a flash built in. So that’s a tiny little flash. But then, so this is not very powerful, because it’s very tiny. So the one I plug into the wall, is huge, and it’s very powerful, very bright.
BLD: Does this one have — (who knows how many cameras Neil has given him access to at this point – ed.)
NK: This one doesn’t have a flash. So this is an older camera, and that one doesn’t have a flash, so that’s just, that piece there is just part of the viewfinder.
BLD: I can see the gear, but…. In this camera… when you look at it.. the film sees like, very far away.
NK: So this is a wide-angle lens. This lens will get a LOT of stuff into the picture — and then if you look at this one, this is slightly less wide-angle, and it – you get less stuff in there. And we can keep going. I can put a telephoto lens on there, and you get… my nose.
BLD: These cameras… was I taking it with the flash?
NK: The flash was up, so it was using the flash. That’s where you plug in… like you can get a flash that sits on top of the camera? That’s where you put it.
BLD: So what are these arrows for?
NK: Oh my goodness. So, there’s so many different controls, especially on a camera like this, this is almost like a computer that takes pictures.
BLD: Yeah, but with this, it’s different.
NK: So this one is a lot simpler – and again, this is a film camera, so you can’t see the pictures – this button, on both of these camera, this button tells the camera where you want to focus, and it’s the same thing with this but this doesn’t have as many places to focus. It only has five.
BLD: Do you know where it’s focusing on? (looking through camera)
NK: What? My ear?
BLD: Your mouth!
NK: Oh, my mouth! … And it’s in focus. Look at that. So that’s the difference between film and digital. With film, I take the pictures and the pictures end up on the film… this one’s older, so it’s harder to see where you’re focusing.
BLD: Oh, now… see, on the little arrow, you see it, but with this one, you don’t.
BLD: When you first went to Krampuslauf, did you take lots of pictures of, like… what kind of Krampuses?
NK: Hmm. Well, the first couple parades, I took pictures by using these cameras, the ones I could hold in my hands, and walking through the parade with everybody. So, it was kind of… action photos of people walking in their costumes, and walking past restaurants, and things like that. So it was more, kind of like, taking pictures of it as it was happening. And the past year, I kind of wanted to take better pictures of people’s costumes, because people put so much work into their costumes, and I don’t always get really good photos of the costumes. So that’s why I figured I’d bring out the really big camera, and set up like a little portrait studio, so I could get really nice detailed pictures of people’s costumes. And it was very different than what I’ve done in past years.
BLD: In past years, was the route different than last year?
NK: Nah, I think the route’s been pretty much the same… except for the first year. I think the first year it was much shorter. I think the first year we just walked through Liberties Walk and then walked back to Liberty Lands, instead of walking all the way through the neighborhood, down Second Street and up Third Street.
BLD: It always seems longer each year.
NK: It seems longer each year? So you’ve done it since the beginning. How do you think it’s changed?
BLD: Not much. I usually forget a lot about the past years.
NK: Well, that’s why I take pictures. What do you think’s gonna happen next year?
BLD: Well, I dunno… (back to camera) THIS year, why did you have it so bright UP, and make it so, like, huge light, like the tallest it could be. Why did you do that?
NK: Because, my idea this year (Dec. 2015 – ed) like I said, was to take really nice pictures of people’s costumes. So that’s why I set up the backdrop, I set up the black curtain in the back, and that was so you wouldn’t see anything except people in their costumes. And the light, I needed the big light because of the camera I used. The really big camera needs a lot of light.
BLD: The big camera… needs so much light. So that’s why you couldn’t take it on the walk?
NK: Actually part of it is, with that camera anyway – and again, we’d have to look at it – but: you have to focus, and then there’s like ten steps you have to do before you can take a picture. So that’s why it’s kind of much slower than using a camera like this (digital). And it’s also relaxed. You can kind of tell people to find a place where you know they’re comfortable, where they can sit for a minute, and you get different pictures than you do with smaller cameras. It’s not a camera that you can really use on the run. It’s something where you really have to think about every picture you take, and because the film I used was so expensive, you couldn’t really mess up. You had, like, one shot to get each picture.
BLD: But couldn’t you just retake it?
NK: Well, the film I used – there’s not a lot of it. Actually there’s a company that’s making it by hand, and I could only get a little bit – they kept selling out of it. And so each picture was precious. And so if I messed up, that was one less picture I could take. With the digital camera, you can mess up as much as you want and you can delete all your mistakes. With this one, (another smaller film camera) I have thirty-six pictures, and film for this camera is not that expensive, you can mess up a little bit, but it’s more expensive than a digital camera. And with the biggest camera, you really can’t mess up.
BLD: Did you bring extra film during it?
NK: I used every sheet of film I brought. And when I ran out of film I just pulled out my digital camera and I was taking pictures of people in front of the backdrop, just with the digital camera. And they came out great too, but they were much different than the ones with the big camera.
BLD: So the ones that you took of us… we wheatpasted them onto our —
NK: I saw that. I wanna see it in person! I can show you the print – that film that I use, when you develop it, it’s kind of a sandwich. And when you peel it apart, you get the negative, which is what I use to make the really detailed prints for wheatpasting. And then you get a print, and the print looks very different, and I can show you what the print looks like.
BLD: How is it different?
NK: You would have to look, and tell me, how you think it’s different. It looks almost like a painting, more than a photograph. It’s not sharp and detailed, it’s kind of very… mushy? And it looks very different from the print from the negative.
BLD: When you – what do you mean by “mushy”?
NK: Even in the wheatpastes, I think you can see – like, you can practically count your eyelashes in the wheatpaste.
BLD: They are huge.
NK: But in the print, it’s almost like there’s no detail at all. So there’s not a firm line around your eyes, and your mouth… I’ll show you the print, and you can see what it looks like. They’re beautiful, but it’s very different than the negative.
… So this is the camera that I used at Krampuslauf. This is the case —
BLD: It’s huge! So what do you stand it on?
NK: So there’s a tripod right here, and I put it on the tripod.
BLD: How do you connect it?
NK: There’s a plate on the bottom – do you see that? – and it’s got a ridge, and it goes right in there.
BLD: So many knobs. What are all the knobs for?
NK: Well, one of the reasons people use cameras like this is they’re very adjustable.
BLD: And they give you a little, like um… ruler.
NK: Yup. And…
BLD: You need to unpack the lens… so what are this for, the extra.
NK: You can kinda see there are some blobs on there? … So if you look through the lens, the lens is open. You come up to the front. See, the lens is open – come right up to the front, you can see through the lens.
BLD: When you took them, did you see to look through the lens?
NK: Yeah! You’re gonna do that right now. You’re gonna look through the lens and see —
BLD: Is that the light you used at Krampuslauf?
NK: Yup! There you go! Then you have some light… now, if you can look through here – alright, it’s going to be blurry, so we have to focus – that’s what this rail is for, you have to learn to focus it, put this over your head, and you can kinda see a little bit better what’s going on. And, if you turn this back and forth, you might be able to get it to focus —
BLD: But when you’re doing that. How do you make it, like – how do you make the angle go up? So you can move it side to side, but… how can you make the angle go up?
NK: So that one, you have to be careful, because this is really heavy. So, you loosen this, and it’s on a ball; and you can just kind of move it: up, down… and what do you notice about the picture on the glass there? Is it right side up?
BLD: I think so…
NK: You think so? It’s actually upside down. Maybe if I get in here. (moves into viewfinder) Can you see me?
BLD: (Laughing) Upside down!
NK: Yeah, see? It’s upside down. So the other thing is that when I’m using this camera a lot of times I’m working with everything upside down. The picture somes through the lens, and it kind of crosses, and it’s projected onto the glass upside down.
BLD: That’s why I see the floor and I see all the tubes … facing downwards… when I got under here…
NK: And the other thing you can do – see, now it’s right side up – so if you look inside, that has a mirror in it, that reverses the picture, to make it right side up again. Well, so these are kinda complicated cameras, but these are the wheels that you use to change the settings for the camera, which on this camera are on the front, so, this is the opening of the lens, how long the lens stays open when you take a picture… what… don’t touch the glass. So if you look through the camera – and if I change this one white knob, and I’m gonna turn it and watch what happens.
NK: Yup! It’s getting dimmer and lighter as I open it. And if you look in the front of the camera?
BLD: It’s closing up!
NK: And then the other thing you can do with this, is there’s the shutter speed, which is how long the lens stays open when you take a picture.
BLD: Oh my g— that comes off?
NK: Yeah. It all comes apart. Everything comes apart. So when you take a picture, you set how big you want the lens to be open, and then – so this dial is how long the lens stays open – and then you take a picture. See, it opens up just for a fraction of a second.
BLD: How do you take a picture, is that the thing —
NK: That’s the button, that’s the picture-taking button. So push that. And you see it just blinked for a second.
BLD: Yeah. Just for a second.
NK: So that would be taking a picture. But we don’t have film in here. So that’s the other thing, is that before you take a picture, you have to put film in the camera.
NK: The film that I used at Krampuslauf comes in paper envelopes. This is one piece of film. This is one picture.
BLD: Oh my God, that’s huge for one picture.
NK: Yup. And then we put it in – this is what holds the film inside the camera.
BLD: ….So that’s only one?
NK: This is one picture. (Laughing.) So to take a picture you put your one piece of film in the camera, and now you can’t see anything because the film is there. So that’s what I’m saying; you have to focus the camera, and then you have like ten steps before you can take a picture. And then you would do that – (snaps shutter) – and there you go. And you can’t see anything when you take a picture. And then you would take this out, and, with this film, you would pull this, and then you get the sandwich of the negative and the print.
BLD: Are some of these just practice?
NK: Some of these were practice —
BLD: Oh! There’s my mom! And my dad.
NK: And some of them didn’t come out as well as others.
BLD: Aw, man.
NK: There you are. That’s the print. And then, the negative… look at that. Look at your face in there, and look at it on the print. See what I was saying about – like you can count your eyelashes, you’re practically – and here, your eyes are very mushy. And the same thing with like, the feathers and everything like that. It’s very detailed in the negative, and very mushy in the print.
BLD: So if you look at… you can count… the little… um… things.
NK: (Laughing) When I scan things and print them here, if there’s dust spots or anything, I can correct them on the computer. When I print things out on the enlarger, and I have prints like this, the dust spots are white spots and I need to use a teeny, tiny, little brush to paint out the white spots on the prints, and I need the magnifying glass because my eyes aren’t that good.
BLD: Especially ‘cause it’s really tiny.
NK: Yes. They’re really tiny little white spots.
NK: You’ll be my assistant next year? If I bring this camera out, now that you know how to use it?
(Apparently wordless response and laughter.)
BLD: Thank you.
NK: Thank you!