Art and commerce
Long Live Photography by Melanie Light
In the wake of the Great Recession in America and the wobbling Euro due to the high finance shenanigans, arts organizations have been under more pressure than usual for a while now. Not long ago, I attended an event to celebrate the new space in San Francisco for SF Camerawork and found myself in great company with the photo folk of the Bay Area, including Darius Himes of Fraenkel Gallery, SFMOMA curator Erin O’Toole, curator and critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau, photographers Ken Light, Judy Dater, Bob Dawson, Luckas Felzman and other luminaries.
The new space was the result of a re-organization for SF Camerawork because it had been on the brink of financial disaster due to the Great Recession in the US. Luckily, it was able to re-organize, retrench and carry on. The new space lies in the heart of a dead zone in the downtown that they are hoping will become renewed and gentrified. As usual, this arts organization will pave the way for more development in a sketchy neighborhood. But, after nearly four decades the organization had grown and had occupied a beautiful space next to the SFMOMA, so being pushed to a fringe neighborhood is tough.
The exhibition that evening was work by Erick William Carroll, the winner of the Baum Award for Emerging American Photographers. His work explores the contemporary use of photography. Among his works on display was an installation piece, “Death in the Darkroom.” One enters a plywood box through a louvered light trap into the re-creation of an analog darkroom consisting of mural sized silver gelatin silhouettes of all the paraphernalia found there. The only thing missing was the smell of fixer.
That evening a group of us sipped champagne and reminisced about the organization. Since 1974 it has been actively and thoughtfully supporting emerging photographers with shows and awards. They were one of the first arts organizations to raise money through auctions and those of us who have been around for a while can remember the days when one could pick up a photograph by Richard Misrach for $100.
Chris McCaw worked for SF Camerawork for a number of years and in no small measure was able to chart a career because of the support and connections developed through the organization. We recalled that such disparate artists as Joel Peter Witkin and Shelby Lee Adams had shows there early in their careers which provided exposure to people who could then foster their talent. It is the gritty, gutsy organizations like these that really provide an important path for the development of artists.
Not two days later, I received notice that the Dutch government will no longer fund Noorderlicht as of 2013 and their budget will drop by 50%, putting them in danger of closing. This is an amazing organization that has supported photography to an international audience for years through their festival and programming. The Ministry of Culture, under pressure from the newly elected conservative government has cut their budget by 25% and is seen as a harbinger for what will happen across Europe. Noorderlicht has been a lifeline for many friends and colleagues over the years. The new models for editorial work make it almost impossible to pursue a career as a documentary photographer or a photojournalist so resources like Noorderlicht provide a much needed oasis of support where photographers can see work, have their work be seen, learn, teach and feel validated. We Americans always look to Europe with envy that the arts are state supported in a way that we can only dream of.
The near demise of SF Camerawork and the potential loss of Noorderlicht are reminders not to take these important incubators for granted and to acknowledge the richness they add to the stew pot of art. The young and the mature artists mix together; inspire each other toward the creation of new work. Most important, they provide a physical space where people can come together. A world without these cultural centers is impossible to imagine and their loss would be incalculable, but that scenario is inching toward reality.
Let all of us who read La Lettre – photographers and lovers of photographers -- raise a glass to salute these wonderful, scrappy organizations all over the globe!! Then, let’s all get busy writing letters to support their funding.