About the Collection

Light Work was founded as an artist-run, non-profit organization in 1973, with a mission to provide direct support to artists working in photography and related media, through residencies, publications, exhibitions, and a community-access lab facility. 

The Light Work Collection serves as an important document of Light Work’s history of support for artists and their creative process. In 1979, photographs informally donated to Light Work by early participants in our Artist-in-Residence Program accumulated into a small collection. It was at this time that Light Work began to formally ask each artist we worked with to contribute work, in an effort to establish and grow a permanent collection. As a result, the collection consists primarily of work made by artists who have participated in the residency, exhibitions, and Light Work Grant recipients. Because we encourage participation by a variety of emerging and under-represented artists in our programs, The Light Work Collection is an extensive and diverse archive that maps the trends and developments in contemporary photography. There are currently over 4,000 works of art in Light Work’s permanent collection. The collection contains all original work, including color and black-and-white photographic prints, alternative processes, collages, installation pieces, artist books, portfolios, and publications. This noteworthy collection includes all genres of expression found in contemporary photography, including documentary, abstract, experimental, and conceptual work. Due to our location in Syracuse, many of the images capture and document the social history of the Central and Upstate New York regions.

Light Work was an early-adopter of digital in the 1980s and made the collection fully accessible online in the early 1990s. Over the years, the website has seen updates to improve the quality of images and ease of use. In 2018, Light Work launched a new database and redesigned the online collection from the ground up. This project was made possible with support from The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), Joy of Giving Something, Inc. (JGS), The Gifford Foundation, The Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation, David Broda at Syracuse University’s Photo and Imaging Center, and Light Work staff, including Jeffrey Hoone, Shane Lavalette, Mary Lee Hodgens, and Victor Rivera.

How do I browse the collection?

If you’re looking to explore the many objects in the collection but don’t have a specific artist, artwork, or publication in mind, we recommend using the browse pages found in the navigation bar. You can browse by Artists, Artworks, or Publications. Each of these pages features a sidebar with options for filtering, to narrow your results based on various criteria. For example, on the Artists page, you can filter by Gender, Citizenship, Heritage, Light Work Relationship, etc. On the Artworks page, you can filter by Decade, Medium, and Artist traits, and more. 

On these pages you can click the gear icon (gear) to change the default sorting method, to add all or selected results to your Lightbox, or to download displayed results as a checklist PDF, thumbnails PDF, or Excel file with basic information. 

How do I search the collection?

When we began designing our collection database, the question we immediately asked ourselves was, “How do you search for images with words?” Rather than limit our database to keywords in the form of a limited number of subjective tags, we came up with the idea to associate longer-form essays and object-related texts with artists and artworks, so that queries can generate results using this language. We realize this is an imperfect solution, but we feel it is one of the best available. 

There are many ways to search the collection website and the approach depends on your desired results. The most basic search can be performed by typing keywords, artist names, or artwork/publication titles into the search bar in the top right corner of the website. To help narrow these searches to a more exact match, place quotation marks around your search (ex. “Cindy Sherman”). A search for the words Family Portrait will return results that include the words Family AND Portrait, however by placing quotation marks around this phrase results will be narrowed to those that include an exact match for “Family Portrait.” The basic functions of the search bar will suit most visitors.

If you are looking to perform a more advanced search, please visit our Find page, where you can not only utilize the Keyword field, but also search more specifically for words or phrases within the Artist Biography, Essay, and Artwork Title fields. Additionally, you’ll discover options for narrowing your search further with attributes like Medium, Publication, Light Work Relationship, Artist traits, and more.

We are always trying to improve the ease of use of our online collection website so if you encounter issues or have suggestions for how something could be made easier, please do not hesitate to contact us.

How do I save artworks to a Lightbox?

In the navigation bar at the top of the page you will see the Lightbox link. Click this link to either Login (if you already have an account) or Register (if you need to create a new account). Once you’ve created an account and are logged in, you will be able to click on the file folder icon (folder) next to artwork images and thumbnails to save the artworks to your Lightbox. You can create curated groups of artworks within your Lightbox to help organize as you see fit, or simply create one group for your favorites. If you are logged in, visit the Lightbox page to view all of your groups and edit artworks that you have saved. 

While viewing a curated group within your Lightbox, use the gear icon (gear) next to the name of the group to edit the name, reorder your artworks, or share your selections. Artworks can be exported as a checklist PDF, thumbnails PDF, or Excel file with basic information.

What is the Gallery page for? 

The Gallery page is a place where Light Work staff publicly feature curated groups of artworks from the collection on this website, as online galleries. Often these online galleries relate to a physical exhibition that has been hosted at Light Work or another institution, and sometimes they are created as a resource for a professor or students surrounding a class visit.

What is the history of Light Work’s physical galleries?

The Light Work Gallery was Light Work’s only gallery from 1973-1985. From 1985-2001 the Robert B. Menschel Photography Gallery in the Schine Center became the primary gallery. All exhibitions were accompanied by Menschel Gallery catalogues, in which 50 were printed from 1985-2001. After a major renovation in 2001, a new gallery in the renamed Robert B. Menschel Media Center became our main exhibition space, and was referred to as the Main Gallery. All exhibitions were accompanied by issues of Contact Sheet that served as exhibition catalogues. The Main Gallery was formally named the Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery in 2012 with an endowment created to support exhibitions. All exhibitions in this space continue to be accompanied by issues of Contact Sheet.

How do I schedule a viewing to look at prints in person?

We are available to discuss your research, make suggestions, or answer questions. Researchers may access the collection for an on-site viewing by making an appointment. Please do so by emailing or calling Light Work’s Collection Manager, Victor Rivera:


When contacting us to make an appointment, please provide a clear list of collection items you are interested in viewing. We recommend using the Lightbox feature on the website to save artworks and exporting your selections to share with us. (See the Lightbox section above for some general information about how to do this). 

Please note that we recommend reaching out to plan a visit at least 6-8 weeks in advance, and that during busy times of the year appointments may not be guaranteed.