Capturing Aviation

The Legacy of Leo J. Kohn

Capturing Aviation

The Legacy of Leo J. Kohn

In the vibrant world of aviation photography, success hinges on a unique blend of creativity, an eye for detail, and a crucial element — patience. While creativity may come natural for some, true mastery comes when waiting for just the right moment. Leo J. Kohn elevated aviation photography because of his extraordinary patience. His extensive career is captured in more than 34,000 mostly unobstructed airplane shots, along with the meticulous details he captured about every plane. The Leo J. Kohn Aviation Photography Collection shows his dedication to preserving those details, and it's what sets him apart in the realm of mid-twentieth century aviation photography.

A Beech Bonanza 35, at Maitland Field, Milwaukee, in 1947, pictured at the top of this page, as noted on the envelope. Kohn typed aircraft details on protective envelopes, where he stored each individual negative. Local entrepreneur Tony Lange leased the Maitland property from 1937—’46.

His incredible patience is what his son, Bill Kohn, and daughter, Mary Ellen Kohn-Buday, most remember about their dad's photography. “He would wait around at airports and airshows for people to clear away from an airplane so he could get the perfect shot with no people in it,” Bill said. “If the sun or a cloud moved enough to ruin the shot, he would wait another hour or so.”

Leo Kohn was born in Milwaukee in March 1927, one of six children. His oldest brother, Greg Kohn (later Krohn) shared his passion for aviation. Even before reaching their teenage years, Leo and Greg were already building model airplanes. Greg grew up and joined the Army Air Corps to help the efforts of World War II. Leo, listening to his brother’s war experience as an engineer on a B-29, and his own interest in aviation, led to his enthusiasm for photographing airplanes. Leo joined the Wisconsin Air National Guard after World War II. As part of the Guard he had access to many post-war aircraft on the flight line.

When Greg returned after the war, the brothers went from building model airplanes to buying their own plane. In November 1945, Leo soloed at age 18 in a J-3 Cub. A look at his logbook shows that he also flew a Cessna 120, and a Luscombe 8A, among others. While Bill doesn’t know all of the details, he knows of a ground loop incident that led to Leo shifting his focus from flying to aviation photography. His girlfriend Mary, who became his wife—they married in 1950—was understandably concerned. Alongside his new marriage and the aspiration to start a family, Leo directed his available funds toward his family’s needs—and photography.

Leo soloed a J-3 Cub in 1945 at age 18.
Leo J. Kohn at Army National Guard camp in 1949.

While in the Guard, Leo met the young Paul Poberezny. Their mutual obsession for aviation led to Leo becoming a founding member of Paul’s fledgling Experimental Aircraft Association — Leo was EAA Number 4. Leo took photos at early meetings and became EAA’s first photographer. He left EAA in 1972 to start his own magazine, Armchair Aviator, producing it for about two years. Leo was a well-regarded aviation photographer and historian throughout his career and served as a director of the Mitchell Gallery of Flight Museum in Milwaukee. And even when he worked for Delco Electronics after his career at EAA, Leo always had his camera bag in the car. You could say that aviation photography became a way of life for the Kohns.

Leo J. Kohn working at his desk in the original EAA basement office.

“It was a family affair in many ways,” said Bill. “The whole family would make stops along the way on vacations to photograph an airplane at some small, out of the way airport.”

Bill said that any airplane his dad could get close enough to photograph was his favorite at the moment, particularly if it was unencumbered by tie-downs and other distracting elements.

"In the ’60s and ’70s as I was tagging along it seemed he focused on the golden era aircraft. The late 1920s, ’30s, and even the early ’40s,” Bill said. “He appreciated the beauty of a polished aluminum executive aircraft, with minimal trim paint and a big radial engine.”

Bill remembers his dad using “a small spiral notebook and a pencil—the camera bag was full of them—to record all the information on each airplane.” His dad’s method, Bill said, “was to take several pictures, stop, and write everything down.”

Leo’s family observed their dad’s techniques in the dark room, and both his wife, Mary, and their children helped with the classification and filing system of Leo’s growing collection. The first darkroom that Bill remembers—Leo had three in different homes—is from the 1960s, when they lived in West Allis, the “heyday of his work,” Bill says. He vividly recalls the darkroom setup.

“It was a set of dull red living room drapes hung from the floor joists in the basement,” he recalls. “In the approximate 6’ x 6’ space was a light fixture hung from the ceiling with a red bulb. The table was basically a card table. The contact picture developing trays were set up left to right and there was an old desk lamp with a low-watt, white bulb sitting on the table. There were three or four boxes of Velox contact paper—F1 to F4—to choose from. He would work in batches of four to eight prints at a time.”

Bill fondly recalls another small but significant detail. A small transistor radio, “with a 9-volt battery and volume control on the right side, and a big dial on the front.” It was AM only, and tuned to Chicago’s WBBM or PBS while his dad worked. “It was always talk-radio or easy-listening, contemporary music,” Bill added.

Leo developed photos one night a week, typically from 6 until 11 p.m. “The part that astounds me is that I can’t remember a single instance of him telling me to get out,” Bill remembers. “While he went about this process he also had to listen to whatever a 5-year-old to 12-year-old boy could think of.”

There’s that patience again.

Bill said that his dad also went to The Darkroom photography store, located at 722 North Milwaukee Street in Milwaukee, to process his Kodak Six-16 roll film into negatives. Next he would transcribe his written notes onto a small envelope, in which the negative would be kept for further duplication. Each envelope was numbered. A separate list by aircraft type/model was maintained that referenced which envelopes contain negatives of that type and model.

Leo J. Kohn Collection, Image #2306. North American A-36A-NA "Beguine" N4845N at the Cleveland Air Races in 1949.

It’s this mindfulness and data on each airplane photograph that makes Leo Kohn’s collection so valuable. He didn’t simply photograph airplanes; he meticulously documented each aircraft.

“His nature was to be meticulous,” explained Bill. “Taking the picture was not sufficient; every detail needed to be recorded somehow for future reference. You looked at a photograph [and envelope] and had no questions about it. All the needed information was there.”

Bill recalls going to airports and airshows carrying his dad’s large, heavy camera bag around when he was young. “I couldn’t even get it off the ground,” he says. The worn bottom edges of the leather bag are a testament to the adventures they shared, and the invaluable role Bill played in supporting his father’s passion for aviation photography from an early age.

Bill Kohn, son of aviation photographer Leo Kohn, carries his father's camera bag at an airshow, a poignant reminder of Bill’s childhood.

It’s a relic from the past, as well as his dad’s desk, that Bill has hung onto since his dad passed away in 2014. Inside the camera bag is a treasure, one of the cameras his dad used, the Kodak Six-16.

“Considering today’s cameras, this one would be a huge challenge,” Bill said. “A roll of 616 took about eight pictures. I can recall times where as he took pictures he would need to stop, reload, and by then, a crowd, clouds, or something else would spoil the shot.”

It harkens back to what he said previously about his dad’s persistence, and the photographic challenges of the time. “With no digital options the picture you snapped is what you were stuck with,” Bill added.

But “stuck with” isn’t how today’s viewers of Leo’s pho- tography collection describe it. Bill Streicher, who worked with Leo on the Friends of the Mitchell Gallery of Flight board, marvels at the incredible detail captured in Leo’s aviation photographs.

“The images captured by Leo are special for several reasons,” said Streicher. “Leo took high-quality photos that documented details. These were most often static photos of the aircraft parked at an airfield. When able, he often took several images of the same aircraft from different angles. This enabled most of the aircraft’s distinctive features and markings to be clearly visible. His images were always sharply focused with minimal obstructions in the camera’s field of view.”

Leo J. Kohn Collection, Images #1004, #1005, #1006. Example of an aircraft photographed by Kohn from multiple angles. North American AT-6 "The Weaker Six", N57799, flown by Jane Page at the Cleveland Air Races for the Halle Trophy Race in 1947.

Streicher should know, he purchased photos from Leo long before they were on the MGOF board together.

But it wasn’t just how he photographed those aircraft. Leo’s keen eye for detail went beyond just capturing the subject; he understood that the background in his photos was important as well.

“I felt that the background visible in Leo’s photos was often as relevant and revealing as the subject itself,” Streicher added. “It captures a point in time, providing an important historical context for the subject in the photo. For example, Leo’s photos at the Cleveland National Air Races in the late 1940s are set in a historical atmosphere of old hangars, grandstands, period vehicles, banners, and signs. This is also true for his photos of aircraft taken near buildings or at locations that no longer exist.”

Leo Kohn was more than a photographer; he was a storyteller. While many are defined by their professions or social roles, Leo’s lens also captured a narrative of family life that was as meaningful, or more so, as any of his professional work.

“Dad’s photography was a significant part of his person,” Bill added. “Most people are identified by their job or place in society, dad was a photographer. He would quickly add, ‘not a photographer of people,’ but our countless family albums of his wife and kids on holidays and vacations indicate otherwise. For much of my formative years I got to know him through the photography the way other kids bonded with their father through sports, hunting, or fishing.”

Reflecting on their father’s lifelong passion for photography, Leo’s son, Bill, and daughter, Mary Ellen, expressed their pride in his work and are grateful to learn of the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame’s efforts of preserving their dad’s collection. But perhaps more importantly, Bill and Mary Ellen know that their dad would want to be remembered for the quality of his work and its comprehensive nature.

“He never aspired to be the superstar of aviation photography, but he would be incredibly pleased that his photographs will now become easily accessible to the public,” Bill said.

Added Mary, “I am so excited to see you all giving him the recognition that I feel he deserves. I am so very, very proud of my Dad!"

Leo J. Kohn Collection, Image #19361. N45CK. Lockheed PV-1, serial number 5333.

The Kodak Six-16

Introduced in 1932 alongside the Kodak Six-20, the Kodak Six-16 was a standout camera of the Art Deco era. That’s likely why Leo and many other photographers of the day enjoyed using it. While nearly identical to its counterpart, the Six-16 was larger but still compact. Its Art Deco design is evident in the octagonal face plate, red highlights, chrome struts, and angled body with nickel and black enamel sides. It’s a striking piece.

Despite its aesthetic appeal, the Kodak Six-16’s performance was hindered by its limited shutter speeds. However, scanning experiments have shown that the film’s resolution compares favorably with today’s high-quality digital cameras. The camera garnered admiration for its design and nostalgic charm. The last cameras were produced in the late 1940s, and the film was discontinued in 1984. The Kodak Six-16 remains highly sought-after by collectors today, prized for its unique Art Deco design and historical significance.


Story by Rose Dorcey
Layout and Design by Dan Silvers

Aircraft photos from the Leo J. Kohn Photography Collection.
Photos of Leo J. Kohn generously provided by Bill Kohn.
Kodak Six-16 camera photos by Dan Silvers.

Leo J. Kohn Photography Collection

Digitization and Preservation Project

Leo J. Kohn Photography Collection

Digitization and Preservation Project