A new exhibition at the Center for Creative Photography demonstrates how one gallery in New York City revolutionized the way we view photography.
Garry Winogrand, New York City, 1968, gelatin silver print, 20 x 25 cm. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Purchase. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
The year 1971 was a time for groundbreaking cultural changes, ranging from the airing of the first episode of Norman Lear’s beloved sitcom All in the Family, the first visitors entering the futuristic Walt Disney World, to the opening of LIGHT Gallery in New York City.
That last event may have gone unnoticed by much of the nation, but it caused a sea change in photography, the ripples from which still are being felt today. And starting this month, visitors to the Center of Creative Photography (CCP) will get to experience that splash for themselves.
CCP Chief Curator Becky Senf sums up why LIGHT started a revolution: “For a long time there had been a notion that photography wasn’t art because you used a camera, which was a
Photo Souja, Tennyson Schad, 1972. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona: LIGHT Gallery Archive
machine, and so anything made with a machine clearly was not an art. And the LIGHT Gallery had a mission to change people’s perception of what photography would be.”
From 1971 until 1987, LIGHT showcased the works of some of the best photographers of the 20th century. “Two who were mainstays were Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan,” explains Senf. “They benefited tremendously from having an institution that was dedicated to the sale of contemporary photography. But also people like Robert Mapplethorpe had his first gallery exhibition at LIGHT, and the gallery sold the work of Paul Strand and André Kertész. In later years, the gallery represented Ansel Adams. Because he was so famous and established, the money from the sale of his works allowed the gallery to show all kinds of young, new photographers who weren’t going to sell that much, but needed that kind of exposure to further their careers.”
The first director for LIGHT was Harold Jones, who previously had worked at the George Eastman House (now the George Eastman Museum). In 1974, Ansel Adams had an exhibition at the University of Arizona, and UA President John Schaefer asked Adams if he would give his archives to the university, instead of donating them to the Bancroft Library at Cal Berkeley. He ultimately agreed, but only if the archives included all of his related materials (negatives, biographical information, syllabi, etc.), and he had one other condition. According to Senf, Adams said, “‘If you want to put me in a photographic context, I would like to talk with you about that. The Bancroft sees me as an environmentalist, and I am that, but even more, I am a photographer.’”
Adams was good friends with Beaumont Newhall, who had been Harold Jones’ boss at the George Eastman House, and Newhall suggested that Dr. Schaefer speak with Jones about which photographers to include at the new center. One thing led to another, and Jones was hired to be the director of CCP. He brought his concepts that worked so well at LIGHT to CCP.
BD Vidibor, untitled, gelatin silver print, 17.8 x 27.6 cm. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Gift of BD Vidibor. © BD Vidibor
Now, these 40-plus years later, CCP has the archives from LIGHT, and the exhibit debuting this month — called The Qualities of LIGHT: The Story of a Pioneering New York City Photography Gallery — will allow everyone to experience a bit of what that gallery was like. “Rather than simply exhibiting the photographers who showed there,” says Senf, “I wanted an exhibition that would suggest to the audience what were the significant qualities of this institution that made it so impactful and central to this culture-wide change in how we understand photography. And so the exhibition is organized around these five qualities: Possibility, that the gallery made it seem like a career as a photographer was a possibility, and they did that by setting higher prices and creating a space that really validated the medium. Community, the way in which the community felt that it had a home base at this institution, and it was a place where they could come together and feel the support of people who believed the same thing they did. The third section is called Fearless, because it was an innovative space that was willing to take all kinds of risks in how it approached what they showed, whom they showed, and how they showed. Transparent is the fourth section, which is about LIGHT being a space for learning, and the way in which it welcomed people and created an educational opportunity to better understand the medium. And the final section is Commitment. It’s about the way in which the gallery took its relationship with its artists seriously, and felt that how the gallery would be successful was committing itself to the support of the artists, and trying to transform their experience through the gallery by providing exclusive representation that offered meaningful financial support.”
TOP: Mickey Pallas, Victor Schrager, Director of LIGHT Gallery, at 724 Fifth Avenue, ca. 1976. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona: LIGHT Gallery Archive. © Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona Foundation
Visitors to the exhibit will see a wide range of images from the archives, as well as documents, models of the galleries, and loans of photographs from current galleries that were heavily influenced by LIGHT. “We also have a great audio guide,” Senf notes. “It’s the first time that the center has done one, and you’re going to hear the voices of the people that I interviewed in my research, talking about their experiences visiting the gallery or showing their work there.”
Anyone expecting to see something conventional, staid, or dated should take note: “It’s a very unusual show for the CCP, but you can’t take this innovative, forwardthinking, risk-embracing institution, and then do a boring, safe show,” sums up Senf. “That wouldn’t make any sense. It felt really important to honor that ethos of experimentation and boldness in the way that we treated the exhibition.
Meet CCP Director Anne Breckenridge Barrett
There’s a lot going on at the Center for Creative Photography, and we asked Barrett to update us on how she came to be the director, and what visitors to the center can look forward to in the near future.
How did your interest in photography begin?
I went to Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school for the arts in high school, and from a very early age I was immersed in the fine arts. I ended up majoring in photography and art history at NYU and American University. It was during this time in New York City that my love of photography was born. The late ’80s and early ’90s were an incredible time for art making in New York, and I soaked up all I could. Personally, my work concentrated on photo essays documenting the lower east side and Bowery as those neighborhoods were declining — long before gentrification set in.
What brought you to Tucson?
A hundred thousand fine prints representing more than 2000 artists, 8 million archival objects representing the life’s work of over 270 artists, all housed in the premier institution for photography in North America! Also, there is no place like Tucson, and I have my husband to thank for introducing me to this perfect place to call home. He was born and raised in Tucson, as was his father, and after living and working in museums back East for many years, I was lucky enough to meet him in law school and we decided to come West after graduating. We lived in Tucson for 10 years, and then moved to Chicago, where I served as the Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. But then, as luck would have it, a leadership position opened up at the CCP, and I was able to return to Tucson and engage in the work I love in the place I have grown to call home.
What changes are ahead for CCP?
There are so many exciting things on the horizon. Our priorities as an institution are: investment, engagement, and access, and over the past two years we have made solid strides in each area. Recently we brought in the largest acquisition since the center was founded and celebrated a wonderful night with the artist David Hume Kennerly, in a discussion with Jon Meacham. Going forward, we will break ground on a new interdisciplinary gallery where our collection will be integrated into the curriculum of students across all disciplines at the University of Arizona, and where the public will experience innovative ways of interacting with the collection. We are consistently growing our membership program, and have taken our members on wonderful trips to New York, Paris and Carmel, California, where we attend art fairs, enjoy behindthe- scenes experiences relevant to photography and fine art, and deepen our sense of community. I formed a leadership giving circle earlier this year and I am full of gratitude for the support shown by members of the Tucson community who believe in our mission and trajectory. I am also humbled and grateful to work with the new Vice President for the Arts, Andy Schultz, who is creating the Arizona Arts division to align with UA President Robbins’s strategic plan for the University. It is truly an incredible time for the arts here at the university.
What are the plans for the David Hume Kennerly archive?
The David Hume Kennerly archive will serve students and the public for generations to come. Visiting scholars, UA faculty and students, curators, and artists will have the opportunity to engage with one of the most important photojournalism archives of the 20th and 21st centuries by connecting the archive to areas of student activity across campus. From journalism, political science, history and more, the Kennerly Archive will become a key component of the CCP’s interdisciplinary offerings. The current exhibition in Old Main will remain there for the next year, and in the summer of 2020, we will use the archive in an interdisciplinary exhibition exploring photojournalism and politics, focusing on its enduring impact on how we document our history and culture. This exhibition will, of course, be very timely given the presidential campaign of 2020.