The Light Work Collection is comprised of over 3,500 works, almost all of which have been donated by our Artists-in-Residence over the years. In 2009, we received a large gift of ninety-three silver gelatin prints from Ithaca-based photographer Jon Reis, whose long-standing relationship with Light Work represents the kind connections that happen here.
Back in the mid 1970s when Reis started coming to Light Work, both he and we were early in our careers. Light Work had just been “born” in 1973, and Reis was a young and hungry photographer looking for images and people to connect with. He was also on the lookout for places to exhibit his growing body of images. (At the time, and still now, Reis calls himself a street photographer. He is a documentary photographer of the American social landscape who counts Gary Winogrand among his heroes.)
Reis had heard that universities usually had small galleries tucked away in their many buildings. He called the main number at Syracuse University hoping to expand his horizons as well as the possibilities for showing his work. Thankfully, the operator he spoke to put the call through to Light Work. Soon Light Work founders Tom Bryan and Phil Block were telling Reis about the lecture, workshop, and grant programs here and urging him to apply.
He listened, applied, and received the first of his two Light Work grants in 1979 (followed by another in 1991). His work was featured in an exhibition in the Light Work Gallery in 1984 and again in a Light Work retrospective exhibition in 1985. Light Work supported him in his application for a NYSCA Conduit Grant, which he received in 1986. Reis used this money to, among other things, fly to and photograph municipal airports all over Central New York.
Reis’s aviation images are an excellent entry point to the world of municipal airfields. These small airports are tucked into the landscape all over the place, kind of like galleries in large universities. They are usually placed pretty close to one another so that pilots of small craft can take off, fly for an hour or so, and then swoop down and take a break as frequently as they need to. Maybe it is because they are almost always deserted save for the radio operator, or maybe it is just the unnatural quiet you feel after getting out in the middle of nowhere after the constant droning of a small engine craft, but these airports tend to be places where little idiosyncrasies in the buildings and landscape are magnified until they become monuments to the surreal nature and quirkiness of being human. Reis’s images capture those magic instants—the ones the camera somehow sees best—that reveal us and the places we build and live in for all of their beautiful irony and poignancy.
Reis imbues his work with a good natured humor, which makes his 2009 gift to the Light Work Collection especially great. His gift of ninety-three silver gelatin prints gives us all a lasting opportunity to delight in life’s sometimes amazing improbability.
The exhibition Jon Reis, By the Way: Two Decades of America Observed 1973-1993 was on view from April to December 2010 at the Robert B. Menschel Photography Gallery, Schine Student Center, Syracuse University.