Iranian Jew Parish Kohanim credits parents, nature for his attraction to beauty

Iranian Jew Parish Kohanim credits parents, nature for his attraction to beauty

One of Parish Kohanim’s most cherished memories from his boyhood in Iran was sleeping outside “under the stars” during the summer.
Those sleep-outs were necessitated by the lack of air conditioning in the house, but it still got the boy into nature. More to the point, it got nature into the boy.
“When I was growing up, there was so much natural surroundings; it was hard not to connect with it,” he said. “We slept in the garden under the stars until Succos.”
Kohanim took those nature lessons, and those from his mother and father, to heart. He came to the United States at age 17 with $300 in his pocket. Today he is one of then more celebrated commercial and fine arts photographers in the country.
Kohanim came to Pittsburgh Tuesday to discuss his work with area photographers — members of the American Society of Media Photographers — at a function at the Mellwood Screening Room.
“I am excited about his work because it is beautifully lit,” said Christopher Rolinson, a Chronicle photographer and professor of photojournalism at Point Park University. “I am working to his business model and will someday shoot entirely for art’s sake.”
When you look at a Kohanim portrait, all sorts of adjectives may run through your head, but the word classical keeps coming back.
His subjects frequently dress and pose classically in front of richly colored backdrops — much like the 17th and 18th century oil paintings hanging at the Sarah Scaife Gallery.
That’s not by accident, Kohanim said.
“I’ve always been fascinated by painters, but I can’t draw to save my life” he said. “This (the camera) is the tool I use to get the effect of painting.”
He likes to describe his portraits as “beauty within beauty,” noting the background is as colorful as the subject.
There’s also an element of sensuality to his work. He frequently photographs nudes in elegant poses, adding a geographic touch as well with the swan-like bodylines he captures.
These are shots, he pointed out, that are created in his Atlanta-based studio –– not on a computer screen.
“I never rely on Photoshop to save my images,” he said. “I try to do everything at the time of the shoot.”
During his career, Kohanim has worked commercially for several Fortune 500 companies, including IBM, AT&T, Coca-Cola and DeBeers. His work has repeatedly appeared on pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Forbes, Time and Newsweek. And he has received numerous Gold Addys, a Clio, and most recently, the 2003 One Show Design Award.
Parish is also well known around the world for his photographs. His work has been featured in prestigious photography, advertising, and design publications.
As a Jew growing up in Iran, Kohanim doubts much of what he’s accomplished could been done in the country of his birth.
“We (Iranian Jews) were treated quite differently,” he said. “I think there was a limitations on what you could do with your aspirations.”
Even so he credits his parents, now deceased, for instilling in him a love for art (there was no television in the house, but there was music and art).
“They were the greatest influence on my life,” he said.

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at or 412-687-1005.)

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