Curb Appeal: Photographer Anne Kohler’s “Porch Portraits” Create More Than Smiles

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When shelter-in-place kicked in back in March, Bay Area photographer Anne Kohler was in a bit of a creative funk. After returning from 5 professionally fulfilling years living with her family in Europe, where she exhibited an engaging, acclaimed series of portraits titled Enlighten at the renowned, inernational Art Basel show, she wasn’t quite sure what to do next. One thing hadn’t changed. She loved photographing people. “That’s always been a passion, just being able to hang out and get to know new people and talk to them about their stories and their lives and try to photograph their genuine selves,” says Kohler, who has been honing her skills since the age of 12 when her grandfather bought her her first camera.

Sometimes we all lose our focus. Add a coronavirus that’s left so many of us yearning to help but feeling powerless stuck at home, and it can feel like life’s giving us lemons. “It’s been one of those lemonade situations,” says Kohler. “A friend of mine who knows that I’ve been struggling with what to do creatively said, ‘Why don’t you do porch portraits? I’ve seen some articles about other people in the U.S. doing them.’ And she sent me a link to a photographer back in North Carolina, which is where I grew up.”

Kohler decided to give it a shot and reached out to her first subject, a family friend who had mentioned with amusement that her daughter was getting entirely too close to a pet tarantula while stuck at home. A porch pet portrait (try to say that fast five times) session was scheduled, but sadly the spider wasn’t in the mood. We feel ya, tarantula. You probably need your space too. “She said the spider was grumpy and she could not get it to rest on her head. I’m like, ‘Please call me when the spider is cooperating. We want to get a photograph of this!’” But she did end up with beautiful shots of the daughter, a close friend of her own daughter, taken of course from a safe six-foot distance.

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“Porch Portrait” by Anne Kohler.

After posting the portraits on Facebook, Kohler received calls right away from other families who wanted in. One (top) had been forced to cancel an eagerly anticipated spring break trip to Hawaii. So they all dressed up in Hawaiian gear, including their dogs, and posed with umbrella drinks. Another (above) opted for an Alice in Wonderland pajama tea party theme. Mom and daughter donned faux fur coats and heels, while dad paired red and white boxers with army boots. Some just wanted a classic portrait, and they finally had time to do something that was perpetually on their wish list.

Kohler feels very fortunate that her husband has remained employed throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Acutely aware that others are struggling, she doesn’t accept a fee for her work, just a donation of at least $25 to the Alameda Food Bank in return for a 15-minute session that yields about ten beautiful shots. “It feels really good to be able to do something with my creativity that gives me a sense of purpose and actually gets me out of my pajamas every day, to be able to go out and take pictures and make money for an organization that needs it,” she says. Without any marketing outside of tagging and thanking her subjects when she shares the porch portraits on social media, she’s already blown past her goal of donating $1000 to the Food Bank and has also donated over $3000 to Meals on Wheels.

With a photographer’s eye, Kohler sees a silver lining in the current coronavirus situation. Like the neighbor who is out of work and struggling financially but still wanted to donate $25 to the food bank because she wanted to help her community. Or those who offer to shop for residents at the greatest risk. “People who have been dealing with some depression issues have said, ‘Hey, I’m really struggling.’ You know, friends have shown up at their house and sat in their car or sat on the curb and chatted with them from 6 feet and tried to kind of pick them up a little bit, which is really nice,” she says. “After being back here for two years, I do feel like life in the U.S. is really fast. People don’t slow down. And it’s been kind of nice seeing families walking together or having a picnic every day that it’s been nice outside.”

She’s trying to document other good deeds she sees in Alameda, like the people putting stuffed animals in their windows so kids can go out for colorful scavenger hunts. And the woman who’s brightening the sidewalks with chalk artwork. Friends have urged her to keep shooting and eventually compile it all in a book. For now she just hopes that her porch portraits might inspire photographers in other parts of the country to feel uplifted and start the trend where they’re living. We have a feeling this is one good deed that’s sure to go viral.

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Another great “Porch Portrait” by Anne Kohler.

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