Photographer Profile - Jeremy Kohm: "Everyone wants motion. They want to get the asset"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday September 1, 2015

Toronto-based photographer Jeremy Kohm  may not be the world’s biggest fan of the Mallomar cookie, but he knows a sweet story when he sees it.

In 2013, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the beloved graham-cracker-marshmallow-and-chocolate confection, Canada’s Report on Business magazine assigned Kohm to go to the bakery near Toronto where Mallomars are made to document the time-honored manufacturing process.

He learned something about the cookie and the photo business as a result.

Though produced in Canada, 85 percent of Mallomars are consumed in the New York City metropolitan area, where they have become a seasonable obsession. Back when Mallomars were first made, in the days before refrigeration, the cookie’s outer chocolate coating tended to melt in warm temperatures, so they were made only in cold months. Keeping with tradition, Nabisco still ships Mallomars only from September through March, at which time New Yorkers begin stockpiling them for the coming cruel summer months.

When Report On Business’s director of photography, Clare Vander Meersch, tapped Kohm for the Mallomar job, all she asked for were  photographs. Kohm delivered the stills, and more. Though it wasn’t part of his original brief from the magazine, he also shot video while he was in center of the Mallomar universe.

“I always bring a GoPro with me on jobs,” he says. “Typically, I’ve got one mounted on the hot shoe of my DSLR. That way, I can be shooting stills and if I want to roll the video, I can. I just select the setting on the GoPro—wide, narrow or medium—and start recording. I shoot the video while I’m shooting stills.”

In the end, Kohm was able deliver an unexpected treat to the magazine’s editors. They turned the video clips in a series of GIFs  that became one of the most popular features on the magazine’s website.

“Everyone wants content, that’s what I learned from that job,” says Kohm. “They want motion content, and they don’t even know what for. They just want to get the asset.”

Reactive Filmmaking

And that, in essence, sums up Kohm’s business strategy.

The 40-year-old editorial and commercial photographer, whose client list includes the Professional Golf Association, Kia, Mastercard, Cadbury, and Travel + Leisure magazine, has been building a career by continually looking for ways to produce and sell video products that he wasn’t originally assigned to create,

“If I don’t get anything, no problem, it wasn’t part of the job. If I do, then it’s a chance to up-sell the client,” he says.

Last March, for instance, the US Olympic Committee assigned Kohm to shoot portraits of American Paralympic athletes who had come to Toronto to compete in the Can-Am meet, a prelude to the larger Parapan Am Games that took place in the city last month. Kohm’s still images were to be used for online promotion for the Parapan Am event, as well as for USOC outreach efforts. But once Kohm got the job, he began looking for ways to do more with it.

“I had the idea for a motion spot, and then it just became a matter of seeing if it could be realized. The stills were the priority and the motion was a potential benefit if it could be pulled off,” Kohm told Pro Photo Daily  recently.

He presented the idea to the USOC, got an enthusiastic go-ahead, and then worked up a very rough treatment for a 30-second motion piece with a film-editor friend, Monica Remba of the Toronto production studio Married to Giants.

The last piece fell into place when he photographed US Paralympic swimmer Anna Johannes. “I felt she had a great look and energy,” he says. After shooting her portrait with one DSLR, he used another to shoot video footage of her. That footage, in turn, was edited together with B roll to create the final piece, which ends with an emotional punch underscoring the fierce competitiveness of Paralympic athletes.

Kohm’s video for the USOC is an example of what he calls “reactive filmmaking.”

“We kind of developed the story as it went along,” he says. “The editor and I knew we had to be able to walk into the situation with a narrative structure—we needed to know what the story was that we wanted to tell and what kind of emotion, tone, and attitude we wanted the piece to have. But it was a question of who do we have to work with, and how long do we have to shoot.”

The result was a promotional spot with both a sense of drama and authenticity. “That’s what clients are looking for now, because that’s what Millennials are looking for,” Kohm says. “You’ve got to be able to get the footage, but also know how to construct the story into a narrative in real time. There’s no time to stop and worry about blocking—it’s all about, ‘How do I catch this story as it unfolds? How do I relate to people in real time and get them to show what they’re thinking and feeling?”

Looking for Angles

At least in part, Kohm credits his instinct for storytelling to his study of English literature at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. He didn’t pick up photography until later, when he spent a few years living in a small town in the south of Japan. There, he taught English and surfed with friends.

“My buddies and I got into photography so we could take pictures of ourselves looking cool while we surfed,” he says. "Then I really got into it and ordered the Time-Life book series on photography, all 12 volumes. In college I wanted to be a writer, but the instant gratification that came from photography really appealed to me. And I found that what I liked most was being on location and responding to the scene I was in. My niche is going to a place and looking for the angles and finding the shot and the story that’s in front of me.”

After spending some time in Australia and studying briefly at the Australian Centre for Photography, Kohm returned to his hometown of Toronto and began assisting. Over the next seven years Kohm worked with a number of photographers, including David Drebin and Derek Shapton. He went out on his own around the time of the economic collapse of 2008 and struggled.

His breakthrough, he says, came when one of his photographs — a densely detailed shot of people at a water park — was picked up by 20 x 200, the online art gallery created by curator Jen Bekman.

“It sold well, but more important was the fact that it was seen by a lot of people,” says Kohm. “That’s how I was introduced to the PGA—someone there was on the 20 x 200 mailing list.”

Later, Luerzer’s Archive named Kohm to its list of 200 top commercial photographers two years in a row. Meanwhile, his work from the Mallomar factory was selected for the American Photography 30  annual. “In an awards-oriented industry, that was important,” he says.

Once Kohm began learning motion, he targeted specific clients that were open to his ideas. “I felt a better course for me was to focus on companies with medium- to smaller-size budgets rather than broadcast-size budgets,” he says.

And as the US Olympic Committee discovered, the return on investment in Kohm’s video work can be rewarding.


Above: Image courtesy of 20 x 200; video courtesy U.S. Olympic committee


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