Light Work – Syracuse – 26/27.9.11

Light Work – Syracuse – 26/27.9.11

Syracuse has a population of 170 thousand – 20 of that is made up of students at the massive university campus, which is in itself a village. Across the university there are 7 gallery spaces – an enlightened relationship between the university leadership and the Executive Director of Light Work, Jeffrey Hoone, who runs those spaces. The university embraces the idea that the arts are an agent of social change, and that gives Light Work good grounding for its work and for a unique partnership to be formed.

Light Work is a photography gallery and facility which is based in the Robert  B. Menschel Media Center. As well as the gallery space here they have another in the Student Centre down three blocks, which is known as the Robert B Menschel Gallery. Menschel is a benefactor who has given money to Light Work to allow its development – we are told he also has supported MoMA and The Whitney. Light Work is an artist-run, non-profit photography centre which has been supporting artists since 1973. Their programme includes residencies, exhibitions, lectures, publications, public access darkroom and digital lab. Light Work have an eleven bay black and white darkroom, large digital suite, a number of high end scanners, 3 state of art large scale digital printers and a number of rooms that artists and resident artists can use. It is larger in scale to Street Level, but similar in character and approach. The only main difference is that where Street Level have an education programme comprising of community collaborations, Light Work train and mentor artists and students, who are their community. A number of students get the opportunity to train up at Light Work and do what could be called ‘internships’ as ‘Tech Heads’, getting the opportunity to work with artists technically. This is part of a synergy between the organisation and the University that obviously benefits both. They also work to support smaller organisations, such as En Foco, an additionality to be applauded.  The University covers overheads of rent and power, a significant contribution, and in return Light Work contribute to the university’s research needs as well as mentoring and training students on an ongoing basis. They receive support from the New York State Council on the Arts; the National Endowment for the Arts; JGS (Joy of Giving Something, Inc.); Robert and Joyce Menschel; Vital Projects Fund, Inc, the Central New York Community Foundation, and their subscribers.

The NEA are the main investors in their Artist-in-Residence Programme – this invites twelve artists to go to Syracuse and be involved in a one month intensive residency, with access to very supportive staff and their facilities. The work of the grant recipients is exhibited at Light Work and reproduced in their publication Contact Sheet. Recipients have included artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Dawoud Bey, Max Kandhola and Ajamu (Max exhibited at Street Level several years ago, and Ajamu is working on a body of work created through a recent Street Level residency). The latter two artists came through Light Works’ partnership with London based Autograph (the Association of Black Photographers), who recommend and select one artist per year. This year it is Dana Popa, who we manage to run into – she is in the final hours of her residency and is anxious about getting work finished and expresses her sadness that her residency is coming to an end. Dana also exhibited at Street Level in 2008 as part of the Jerwood Photogarphy Prize with her series ‘Not Natasha’ dealing with the sex trafficking of women from Eastern Europe, a project that has been recently published by Autograph. A feature of their programme is the support of artists from culturally diverse backgrounds who are emerging or may be mid-career artists. Recipeints artists receive support of $4000 for that month and get accommodation free, a two person space which another benefactor gave money for which allowed Light Work to buy it from the University.

Contact Sheet, their publication, is a well produced glossy magazine which is sent to over three thousand art lover, galleries and libraries in over thirty countries. 5 issues are produced a year and it is a significant platform for the resident artists, who also get a solo show at the gallery. Over 150 issues have been produced and it is now available through their new digital archive here.

We get to meet Vernon Burnett, their community darkrooms facilitator, and John Mannion, their Digital Lab Manager who works very closely with the artists in realizing their ideas.

On show in their main gallery is Kelly Anderson-Staley, a young photographer currently based in Arkansas. Her exhibition ‘Americans’ which ‘alludes to the split character of American identities (Irish-American, African-American, etc.), while only emphasizing the shared American identity. Therefore, although the heritage of each individual might be inferred from assumptions we make about features and costumes, the viewer is encouraged to suspend the kind of thinking that would traditionally assist in decoding these images in the context of American identity politics.’ These are beautiful and arresting portraits created using the Tintype method of early photography – these require long exposure times and this accentuates the stern look of the sitters.

We meet with Hannah Frieser, the Director, who leads us through their spaces and facilities and tells us more about their working practice. It is quite clear, from our conversation with her and with John, that they are quite passionate about their support for artists and this gives the organization a mission led approach that very much clicks with our work at Street Level. We discuss possible collaborations in the future involving potential exhibitions and also the scope for personnel exchange in the future – more to follow on this in due course. We agree to follow this up on a few weeks time, but in the meantime, Street Level will aim to get the word out to artist photographers about their next round of residency calls.

In their second space, they are showing work from the En Foco collection – En Foco was started by a group of young Puerta Rican photographers based in New York and it sought to create opportunities for their work to be seen at a time when there was little evidence of Latinos and African Americans in the worlds of art and photography in the United States. The exhibition contains some incredible work covering three phases of their development, and includes artists such as Dawoud Bey and Juan Sanchez – see more here.

‘a non-profit organization that nurtures and supports contemporary fine art and documentary photographers of diverse cultures, primarily U.S. residents of Latino, African and Asian heritage, and Native Peoples of the Americas and the Pacific’

Additional Imagesof Lightworks:




Malcolm Dickson

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