Over the course of his three-decade career Parish Kohanim has come far-yet he appears timeless: trim, immaculate, fresh. His was a career that never grew in fits and leaps; it evolved, like faith. In truth, his greatest leap occurred the day he boarded a plane, alone at the age of seventeen, to begin a life in the United States, leaving behind a beloved family and happy home in the ancient Persian city of Shiraz. Everything else must have seemed easy after that.
Like many artists, Kohanim was shaped by his childhood, but perhaps more so because it ended so abruptly. When he left that childhood world behind, he took with him only its memories. It was a shock to find himself in a new culture and place without family, money-or even a guaranteed place to sleep. To compensate, he began a lifelong obsession for documenting things he loved, things that reminded him of more tranquil times-so as to hold them-possess them, so that he never lost them again.
His choice of photography as a career, then, was not due to a lifelong fascination with the lens or love of the craft. As years passed, whether someone viewed his work as "commercial" or "fine" was of little consequence: Kohanim's passion was to document the beauty life offered, whether these moments reminded him of his childhood or symbolized discoveries during his new life in America. From his point of view, what anyone called his work was simply semantics.
As the Kohanims were Sephardic Jews living in a Muslim country, life was good and happy, but never easy. Given the limitations placed upon them by the mores of their society, the Kohanims pursued interior lives. Family was central. Books ubiquitous. Opera and classical music pervasive. The mountains surrounding this southwestern section of the country rose high and arid-lending incredible light and natural splendor. It was a place where one could develop a keen sense of sight. The Kohanims reveled in it, frequently taking handsome picnics under starry skies and shining moons that lasted well after midnight. The sounds, smells, sights, textures and tastes of this natural world affected young Parish and shaped his image of the ideal. They were his lasting memories.
"As a child, I was close to my mother," he recalls. "I used to sit on a stool in the kitchen while she prepared dinner and talk to her endlessly. She was my best friend. I can remember the smell of the fragrances she wore, the simple elegance of her dress, always immaculate. She taught me that the beauty in the world was mine for the taking-through literature, music, art, flowers, food and love. While there were limitations to what I, as a Jew, could do in Shiraz, there were no limitations on how far my imagination could carry me."
In his mid-teens he began a pen-pal relationship with a young girl in Brooklyn. His bedroom soon filled with all things American. He saw American movies, learned a bit of English. His family befriended Americans serving at a military base not far from their home. He decided then that he would live in the U.S. When he turned seventeen, his father and mother agreed to help, scraping together the funds necessary for a plane ticket and an additional $300 to support him once he got there.
And so he departed, leaving behind a life well loved, but carrying with him an appreciation for what life could offer. Parish saw his mother only two times after he left home, for a total of less than four weeks. "She gave me the gift of seeing and understanding beauty," says Kohanim, "that gift led to my profession, my passion, my art."
Arriving in the U.S., Parish lived for a short time with a family of Russian émigrés, whose oldest child had been an exchange student in Shiraz. The large and congenial family gave Parish free room and board for a month, and then helped him find room and board at a home nearby. "That Russian-American family," he remembers, "became my American family."
Kohanim entered the senior class at Redwood High School in Larkspur, California, graduating about nine months later. He spoke little English. He cut grass, washed dishes and bussed tables to pay room and board. After high school, he took some English language classes in San Francisco, hitchhiking from his rented room in Corte Madera across the Golden Gate Bridge to his various restaurant jobs. With improving English, he continued his education, studying at Stockton Community College 90 miles inland from San Francisco. There, he took his first photography class.
Yet he missed the city and the woman he loved, Rosanne, whom he met by volunteering to help her lug her baggage up one of San Francisco's notorious hills. After gaining his degree from Stockton Community College, he enrolled at the University of San Francisco, majoring in cinema and minoring in "fine arts," the department in which "photography" occupied a rented room.
"I became photo assistant to the professor," Kohanim says, looking back on those early years of photography. "I knew immediately that photography, not film, was my calling. It would enable me to document the world." But fellow students did not like his work, telling him in class critiques that it was "compromised" by a degree of commercialism. Kohanim even then was nonplussed, "Since it was my personal work at the time, there was nothing 'commercial' about it. But I learned then a valuable lesson: 'fine art' photographers are rarely taken seriously unless their work reflects some inner fear, anger or pain. I took photos of things that were beautiful, because they gave me peace and refuge. I was not then and have never been interested in using my work as canvas upon which to paint sorrow or rage."
After living together on Nob Hill during his college years, Parish and Rosanne married and took a small apartment on Potrero Hill. As a student, busboy, waiter and emerging photographer, he lived in the Bay Area for nearly seven years. After that, the couple moved to New York City's Hell's Kitchen, Rosanne's childhood neighborhood. Her mother found them a place to live.
"The image a newcomer takes to New York City is one of lights, glamour and soaring expectations. The reality for us was a one-room studio in Hell's Kitchen filled with roaches not lights," says Kohanim of his introduction to Manhattan. Once there, he paid a visit to the studio of the famed Richard Avedon only to hear Avedon's young assistant hiss, after thumbing quickly through his book, "maybe you ought to consider cinema."
Parish ignored that suggestion and persisted taking pictures and showing them around town. Eventually he found an assistant's role with revered Polish photographer and Auschwitz survivor Ryszard Horowitz. There he learned much, honing his technique and developing his artistic vision. Still, Parish did not take to New York. He missed open space and the presence of the natural world. "I visited Atlanta in the spring of 1978 and it reminded me of a botanical garden," he said. "So after a year in New York, I convinced Rosanne to move there. It didn't take much to get her to leave our little studio apartment—or the roaches."
Through hard work and persistence, Parish Kohanim established himself as a talented photographer in Atlanta. He knocked on a lot of doors. He took jobs big and small. He sent out self-promotional pieces. And he made friends. "I was never good at marketing," he says, "but I loved connecting with people and establishing relationships. This is what led to new opportunities."
He and Rosanne bought a small home and eventually had a son, now 26 and married. They bought a larger home and worked hard to build their business. "Parish was the photographer," says Rosanne. "I did everything else." In 1981, they put together enough money to buy a dilapidated car repair garage on West Peachtree Street in growing, car-choked Midtown Atlanta. Kohanim hired Atlanta architect Tony Smith to design the space. It was a fortuitous move. Smith created a zen-white paradise of quiet, curved walls and abundant light, all oriented-L.A.-style-to the rear of the lot, away from the street and noise. It remains virtually unchanged to this day-an example of constancy in Kohanim's life. "I built my dream space," he says now, "and I never saw a reason to change it."
On the one hand, any successful photographer masters technique. It is "seeing" that separates the picture-taker from the artist. "After 30 years, the technical aspect of what I do is second nature," explains Kohanim over a long lunch at a nearby hotel. "This allows me to focus on work that I do for myself. I study trends, but I do not follow them. For example, five or six years ago, I experimented heavily with Photoshop and I still consider it a valuable tool, but little more. I am interested in learning new technologies, but they, too, are tools, not substitutes for skills. Today, my commercial work is shot digitally because it is fast and clients demand it. But my most interesting work is a return to conventional photography methods and specialty black-and-white printing. That is what fascinates me, motivates me and fires my passions."
Kohanim says that today's ad executives have lost interest in making a Coke bottle look like art. "Anybody can shoot a Coke bottle. Only the talented can make that bottle look like art." In the '60s and '70s, one saw more ads that looked like art, he believes, adding, "but nowadays all we hear about is 'client-driven,' 'brand-centric' and 'marketing-oriented,' as though beauty and intellect can't sell cars or soap. Well, they can." He admits his artistic approach is a harder sell than more conventional approaches, but his opinion remains unshakeable.
"I know that over the years any number of art directors who have received my promo pieces have snickered at them," he says, with a trace of hurt. "But I believed then and now that someone who works in the trade and has the word 'art' in their title has the potential to see beauty for beauty's sake and respond to it. I mean, who needs to look at another image of commercial products to make a decision about talent?"
Kohanim has earned the right to think this way. He was the young man whose first decision as an adult was to leave behind everything he loved, knew and trusted to come to an intensely competitive country and elect an enormously competitive trade. And he succeeded at it. His is a voice worth hearing.
After a dozen years, I stepped back into Parish Kohanim's gleaming white studio and found myself embraced by memories of collaborations past. It wasn't that little had changed in the intervening years-it was more that a man had come full circle. He began his life learning to appreciate the simple beauty of the natural world-his mother's gift of "seeing," as he phrased it. He left all that and started a career from scratch, working hard in tandem with his wife to become successful. He accumulated things, but never made money his focus. Now he is putting his energy into his new gallery and fine-art photography, while being more selective in his commercial projects. I realized I was witnessing a rare thing: in this cacophonous, tumultuous, insatiable world, there was a man at peace with himself, at home in his world, in harmony with his art.
Frenetic people fuss and fluff and pamper themselves as they try to take their little corner of the world and make it beautiful. Others see beauty in things as they are, rarely making adjustments or improvements. Still others, like Parish, have the ability to bring to the present the beauty of the past.
His family taught him many things. They made him an artist. They set him free. Through his work, he makes them immortal. There is a fine line between art and commerce. Parish Kohanim has crossed it. ca