“Bitumen of Judea dissolves in oil of lavendar in greater or lesser densities of saturation according to its exposure to light, and thus Joseph Niepce in the year of Thomas Jefferson’s death photographed his barnyard at Chalon-sur-Saone. Hours of Light streaming through a pinhole onto pewter soaked asphalt onto lavender in mechanical imitation of light focussed on a retina by the lens of an eye.”
-Guy Davenport, from THE INVENTION OF PHOTOGRAPHY IN TOLEDO.
Photography as an art and science, is a long story involving at every stage some account of the people who are drawn to its mysteries. This one part of that story began 13 years ago when Phil Block and Tom Bryan came together in Syracuse, New York to form the Community Darkrooms and a year later Light Work. You Will read in the following pages about the decisions they made, the route they took, and the programs they invented that helped make Light Work/ Community Darkrooms one of the most respected artist run photography centers in the country. I had the pleasure of working with each of them separately for a year and am greatly indebted to them for all they have taught me, for their guidance, and for their friendship.
A.D. Coleman spent a week in Syracuse last summer interviewing people involved with LW/CD, more time on the phone talking to artists who have passed through our programs, and at least the past twenty years absorbing and analyzing the field of photography. Allan is one of the most important voices contemporary photography has, as his essay in this catalogue bears out.
For the past eighteen months, Janice Giarracco, the director of this project, has worked to shape the exhibition and catalog. Janice was responsible for every aspect of both enterprises from the smallest detail to the overall concept. Without her determination, insight, and effort this project would never have been possible. In addition to making all the arrangements to circulate this exhibition after it closes at the Everson Museum of Art, the Gallery Association of New York State provided us with invaluable technical and creative advice and lent us materials that allowed us to use our resources for other aspects of the project. Several members of their dedicated staff helped us, and I would especially like to thank Kevan Moss, Executive Director, and Connie Klein, Exhibitions Coordinator.
For the past several years the Everson Museum of Art has had a strong commitment to Contemporary photography. This is a chance to thank the Everson for that ongoing commitment as well as for providing us the opportunity to open this exhibition there.
Thousands of individuals have been involved with LW/CD’s programs over the years, to only some of whom I can give special distinction and thanks. Andy Buck, Lance Wisnewski, Bobby Burns, and Karl Baden were around at the start and helped shape the community sense of the organization. David Broda, Richard Laughlin, Carl Geiger, Warren Wheeler, Jon Reis, Mima Cataldo, Ruth Putter, Lucinda Devlin, Christian Sunde, Ted Diamond, Nancy Gonchar, Amy Doherty, Michael Davis, Susan Brodie, Karen Vournakis and Bill Gandinio are avid supporters of LW/CD and are an important part of the photo-scene in Central New York.
Greg Daily and Jane Kowalik-Daily designed the exhibition at the Everson and edited the text for the wall panels. Their immeasurable contribution to this project complements the strength and power of the works presented. William Padgett’s thoughtful and creative design gives this catalogue its style, Margaret Mauer used her considerable talents to edit the text for this catalogue. Thanks once again to David Broda, who provided impeccable reproduction transparencies for the color separations produced by Glundal Color in Syracuse, New York. Many thanks also, to Peter Siegel, Ted Diamond and Constantine Evans for their help in preparing for this exhibition. Alling and Cory generously donated supplies and Salina Press printed this catalogue and worked with us all along to help us get the most for our money.
The life of LW/CD’s programs comes from the artists we have worked with from all over the country. The artists who taught our workshops, exhibited in our gallery, lectured and participated in our artist-in-residence program all were extremely cooperative with us in assembling materials, sharing with us their work, their ideas, and their laughs. I cannot name all of them , but a comprehensive list appears in the back of this catalogue.
From practically the first date LW/CD opened, we have survived with funds from three primary sources. Syracuse University has given us the space and facilities that have enabled us to concentrate on programming and providing support to artists. To the University and to the Syracuse community we are very grateful. The New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts have funded most of our Artists’ programs. Without their grants we would never have been more than a rental darkroom facility that probably would have gone out of business years ago.
I have been involved with the administration of LW/CD since 1980. Those five years have been a rare experience for me, from dealing with the meekest Darkroom member trying to figure out how to develop a roll of overexposed tri-x to the most demanding artist trying to get press credentials to bring a view camera to every event in town. Now, at the beginning of LW/CD’s second twelve years, my sense of it as an organization that still matters to a wide range of people already makes this exhibition seem to me well worth the price of admission.
Light Work/Community Darkrooms
The Organization as Process
There are dependencies in the relationship between society and the arts, one of which is simple and obvious: artists need places to work. Its converse, often not acknowledged but no less true, is that places need artists to work in them. In the past fifteen years there have been a number of attempts to respond to this mutual need. Light Work/Community Darkrooms, (LW/CD or Light Work, for short), located at 316 Waverly Avenue, Syracuse, New York, is one of them.
LW/CD, founded in 1972 by Tom Bryan and Phil Block, is not the kind of organization that is defined by a street address, although it has equipment and occupies space. Nor is it simply an institution, though it exists within one and has a formal structure of its own. During the period under discussion here - the first decade of its functioning, roughly 1972-84 - LW/CD is best understood as a state of mind that may well be the key to its survival and success.
To understand that state of mind, it is necessary to begin with the conditions under which it arose. LW/CD came into being at the end of the period loosely known as “the Sixties”, a much-maligned and little-understood phase of recent American history. This is not the occasion for unravelling that period’s complexities, but some of the elements that characterized it are an important part of this story.
The Anti-War and Civil rights Movements of the Sixties were both fueled by an activist populism - people from different levels of society trying to involve themselves conspicuously in the institutions that controlled them. A parallel energy, pluralistic and often self-conspicuously political, was applied to the arts.
Every artistic approach underwent simultaneous exploration, using every approach from the most severely formal to the most vehemently anti-art strategies. Particularly relevant to LW/CD’s development is the fact that political commentators and social analysts were beginning to question the impact of the lens-based media - still photography, film, and television - on American culture at the same time as serious critics of the arts were concertedly attending to the aesthetic possibilities of those same medias. The domination of the arts by more traditional forms of expression (paintings, sculpture), which had been slackening since photography’s invention, was finally broken; and, the various modes of expression and communication began to influence each other in extraordinary ways.
To many at the time as well as the retrospect, photography was a microcosm of the larger movement. Its centrality was epiphanized , in an odd sort of way, by Blow-Up, Antonioni’s 1966 film version of Cortazar’s short story about a photographer’s obsession with the vision of his lens. College students began to over-subscribe photography courses, forcing the subject into a conspicuous place in the curriculum. Even those who did not wish to study photography in courses wanted access to facilities for producing images, to repositories and showcases of photographs, to periodicals exploring the medium, to informal photographic instruction of all kinds.
The National Endowment for the Arts, along with a network of state and local agencies- still flourishing from the Kennedy-Johnson administration - supported this expansion. With all forms of photography simultaneously active (daguerreotypists working alongside holographers), organizations - usually artist-run - began to appear to serve aspects of the movement. There were no real models for what these organizations were trying to do; they had to invent themselves. The Visual Studies Workshop, San Francisco Camerawork, Apeiron Workshops, The Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies and the Center for Exploratory and Perceptual Arts: these among many others were born in those days. We now call it the “photo boom” - that period from approximately 1973 to 1981 when everyone seemed interested in photography.
Syracuse University, located in Upstate New York. had, like many American colleges and universities in the middle and late 1960’s, experienced political unrest and activism, including a major student strike. Part of its administration’s response was to fund the conversion of a former cafeteria building into a student-run student center. The University spent about $400,000 on the physical plant. This included the installation for a media center designed for both still photography and video. The video aspect of the project, incorporating a cable system, became well-known under the name of Synapse. The still photography aspect was born nameless - a well equipped space waiting for occupants. The university had spent $80,000 constructing a state of the art darkroom with a capacity to accommodate several hundred people; but, says Tom Bryan, “There was no plan for who would use it or what it was for. It wasn’t for school, wasn’t academic…it was just being built.”
“There was no program,” Phil Block recalls, “We literally came in when the walls had already been sheet rocked and painted; the equipment - fancy, elaborate sinks, dry-mount presses, twenty enlargers - had already been installed or ordered. But, the space was raw, in a sense. So our first task was getting along; then unpacking the equipment, setting it up; and then designing a program to make effective use of the facility.”
The situation was so loose that Block and Bryan never actually signed a contract with the university. They did, however, have to forge a working partnership with each other. Their differences say much about the state of photography around 1970; the merger of two such unlike people which they both call “Phil-and Tom” was essential to the survival of the project.
In 1972, when the project started, Phil Block was twenty, just finishing his senior year as a psychology major. He’d been studying photography all through his years at syracuse. As he recalls, “My first crush on photography was Minor White; I was very influenced by Mirrors, Messages, Manifestations (White’s important monograph) and the early Apertures, which I thought were it in photography. And of course Weston’s Daybooks. So that was my background in photography; making photographs as metaphors, as personal statements; the Zone System,...”
Tom Bryan was already graduated from the university. His education was in political science and journalism. He was trained as a writer and had been active in the anti-war movement on campus. “I’d had photography classes, three or four semesters, in the course of being a journalist, and i’d been making pictures. In doing the newspaper stuff, you always had a camera with you, to make visual notes as well as written notes… I was more interested in community service, anything that had that kind of community orientation - that was my politics...Politics got me involved, in the same way that art got Phil involved.”
Phil Block says it somewhat differently:”I didn’t know Tom, probably wouldn’t have ever, had it not been for two factions in the media center project coming together, each with their own proposed candidate. Here’s Tom with his long hair and goatee, he lives in a commune that holds hands before dinner, he eats all this macrobiotic bullshit; I had absolutely a butch cut, wore work shirts and carpenter’s pants. We were forced to come together.”
Community Darkrooms began, and with it the creature that Block and Bryan both refer to as Phil-and-Tom.” Bryan puts it well:’Phil-and-Tom’ was a show. We were one guy-we were like a two-headed thing. And we’re very different, the two of us. If it would be more appropriate to approach somebody with ‘Phil’,we would do that; and if it was more appropriate to approach them with ‘Tom”, we would do that. So it opened twice as many doors as if you just had one personality. We never did anything- a show, a publication, anything- until there was consensus. But we never would go through with anything until we both agreed on something; then we’d both give it everything we had. So once it got to be ‘Phil-and-Tom’, it was one mind with two people doing the work.”
The Work started out with the details of providing a service to the university community and others in the city, a rental darkroom and teaching facility offering workspace and instruction in photography from the basic to the advanced level. Phil and Tom opened Community Darkrooms, rental rates were $35 for four months. (Now they’re up to $50 for the same length of time.) “It’s basic community service”, in Bryan’s words.”It was like a health food store for photography when it started- open all the time.”
Soon after Community Darkrooms opened - within its first year, in fact - the university cut off all specific funding for the project, leaving it with no operating budget, only its physical plant and, effectively, a subsidy for building maintenance, utilities, and some services such as telephones and duplicating that all continued to be covered by the school. Once the project was underway, however, that capital support proved to be support enough. A consequence of the photo boom was that Community Darkroom had a sufficient constituency. Its essential functions could be self-sustaining.
Within a short time, the operation was serving 500 customers a year. With economic stability assured, Bryan and Block began to expand the range of activities they were sponsoring; and, because these would require extraordinary economic support, a separate non-project corporation was formed to enable them to apply for outside funding. Though it shares the same officers and occupies the same place at the same time, all of this corporation’s funding and activities are separate from those of Community Darkrooms. Its name is Light Work.
From its start, Light Work has been an experiment in service to the field. That experiment has included, at various stages and for varying lengths of time, lectures, workshops, exhibitions, a newsletter, various special one-shot publications, elementary-school teaching ventures, “regrants” local photographers, photographic research projects, and an artist-in-residence program. Some of these have met with remarkable success, while others, even in the estimation of those responsible for them, have failed. The occasional failure notwithstanding, however, many people-including representatives of parallel arts organizations, and also state and national funding agencies-consider Light Work to be a model arts program.
The reasons for Light Work’s exemplary status are several. For one thing, the program’s ambitions were modest; its projected scope was regional, not national. The second reason follows the first. An aspect of this characteristic was the early decision to make the venture site-specific, carefully and intentionally matched to its environment and support systems. “We only exist because we’re in New York”, Bryan notes. “New York has a good climate for doing this; there’s a good art population, there’s money to do it.”
A third reason for the success of this enterprise has been resilience; the willingness to take chances, to err, to learn from mistakes, to chart new courses when the territory doesn’t match the map. What most operations work towards- an adequate physical plant - was a given at the start of LW/CD. So it is particularly remarkable that Block and Bryan avoided objectifying their project and thinking institutionally. Instead, they conceptualized the whole thing provisionally, acknowledging contingency and cycle. “We’ve always been a spontaneous organization that could die on an hour’s notice.” Bryan Claims. “We’ve always wanted to be able to fold at any given time and not owe anybody any money, and all our commitments would have been fulfilled. That’s a rule.”
Once the two symbioses - LW/CD as the vehicle “Phil-and-Tom” as the instrument - had been established, the project was fully underway. Light Work’s first successful grant application, to the New York State Council on the Arts, sought and received funding for a mix of lectures, workshops, and exhibitions. At that stage, recalls Bryan, “The arts scene was tiny. NYSCA itself was still a fledgling organization. CAPS (Creative Artists Public Service, a non-project outfit involved in regranting NYSCA monies to individual artists) heard about us, and sent up Larry Fink. He was our first visiting artist. Then Les Krims showed up a couple of weeks later - we had hired him for a two-day workshop. He drew 60-70 people.” This was the first of a series of workshops, usually three days in length, which continued over the next four years.
Exhibits, which had been randomly scheduled at first, composed of whatever came along, began to be more carefully chosen and systematically presented. The exhibitions program has been one of the most effective components of the overall project. Light Work was fortunate to have consistently good local coverage of their shows, which helped to build and maintain a steady traffic in the gallery.
The combination of these activities - augmented by a lecture program which its founders frankly admit was over-ambitious and unsuccessful - laid the groundwork for the coalescing of a small but vital photographic community in Syracuse. Certainly there is one there now, and at least some of its members trace that sense of community back to those early days. Dave Broda, for example, was there “Pretty much from the beginning’ as an instructor in the Darkrooms. At that time, in his opinion, “there was a strong photography community centered around where all that energy was. It changed my whole idea about what photography was - from a real journalistic approach to a street aesthetic/straight photography approach.” As a result of his involvement with LW/CD, particularly in several historical projects, Broda says he’s “much more involved with photo conservation - I work with museums, historical societies, doing work along those lines. It opened up a lot of different avenues.”
Richard Laughlin got involved with LW/CD in the summer of 1974. He came looking for a sense of community, he says, and found it. “I was willing to trade skills for that sense of community.’ He laments the project’s more currently established status. “You can do anything when you’re anonymous,” he sighs, “once you gain longevity, people pay attention. So some of the struggle is gone - and the struggle is what keeps you active.” By then end of 1975, Light Work had sponsored workshops by such artists as Charles Harbutt, Melissa Shook, Clarence John Laughlin, Dave Heath; it had shown the work of Karl Baden, Barbara Weiss, Joseph Jachna, Gail de Loach, and many others; and it had presented numerous lectures. Its organizers had fulfilled their plans and commitments satisfactorily enough that the grants agencies had become dependably supportive. Indeed, they were doing everything they could to bring photography to the people, but “the people” weren’t flocking to photography. It was time to redefine Light Work’s constituency, and reconsider the ways available to serve it.
That redefinition turned out to be drastic. The general public was a willing audience for new work but had no interest in listening to younger or lesser known photographers, so the exhibition program remained in place, but the workshops and lectures were gradually dropped. The region’s photography community needed support for its own work, so the “regrant” process - in which Light Work serves as the institutional funnel for the funding of local artist’s projects - was initiated. That same community needed direct contact with artists from other parts of the country, while artists from elsewhere needed a place to work. From this there emerged the Artist-In-Residence program (A.I.R.) which, in several ways, has been Light Work’s major contribution to the field. And some record of activities - what Block and Bryan refer to as a “trace”- needed to be kept, so the publication of Contact Sheet, a regular broadside annotating the project’s results and illustrating the work of exhibitors, “regrant” recipients, and artists-in-residence was established.
The idea behind the A.I.R. program is simple and elegantly executed. The artists who are chosen are given a month’s time, the key to a modest apartment, and the key to the LW/CD facility including a private darkroom, $1,000 in cash, and all the assistance that the staff can provide in terms of acquiring special equipment, permissions, of anything else necessary for the artists’ projects. There are no provisos, no requirements. Resident artists do not have to lecture, teach workshops, donate prints, make public appearances, or even socialize with the staff and the photography community. Interchange with local photographers is appreciated but not mandatory. In short, artists are paid to do what is presumably most important to them and to their audience: they are paid to do their work. That such an obvious idea should be seen as radical says much about the assumptions of arts organizations and the arts funding structure of our time. The initial support for the pilot program came from the New York State Council on the Arts.
Their first recipient was Charles Gatewood, who came in September of 1975. Gatewood ended up staying for 7 weeks, during which time he not only photographed in the Syracuse area but also printed and edited much of the work that made up his subsequent book Forbidden Photographs. Additionally he put together the first issue of The Flash, a tabloid periodical he has issued sporadically over the years.
Shortly thereafter, Roger Mertin was in residence. According to Block, “He worked 10 hours a day photographing in our region. He still wants to come back to do it again. He made fabulous pictures in and around Syracuse for a full month. You could do a book on the work he did here.” This aspect of the residency - the possibility that the work produced during it would be directly about the Syracuse area - gradually became a major factor in the selection of residents. “Upstate New York was very special to us.” Block elaborates. “The iconography and topography is very beautiful. We began to look for and encourage artists who would come to Syracuse not to spend a month in the darkroom using our facilities, but also to spend a month in and around Syracuse photographing the region - thinking that there could perhaps be no better way to get out the word about Upstate New York than by getting photographers to come up and make photographs which would live their own life in the world of images.”
This was not a hard-and-fast requirement at any stage. Among other things, the severity of the winter in the region prohibits many photographers from such work during the period of their residencies. So people come here with other purposes as well. Chris Enos, photographer and founder of the Photographic Resource Center in Boston, Chose to spend her time printing a limited-edition portfolio of nudes. “That work’s not about Syracuse or the surrounding environment“, Block points out. “But it is very much about the effect - the ideals - that Light Work’s always been about: the notion that artists can come to Syracuse, spend a month uninterrupted, totally in tune with their own projects - and pretty much be catered to. Our job has always been to make sure that whatever they’re doing works.”
In a letter of appreciation, Enos wrote, “One of the most difficult things to cope with in being an artist full-time is that usually one must work at a job full-time to support one’s work. The greatest gift that can be provided to an artist is time and financial assistance to just do one’s own work without interruption.”
Another resident artist, Michael Martone, took the opportunity to print and lay out images for a major image-text autobiography, Notes From a Moving Ambulance. Martone used the stage of Watson Theater, right across the hall from LW/CD, for experiments with image sequences. “Having that tremendous floor space was another bonus.” Martone asserts. “Most of all, the recognition was wonderful - especially with virtually no strings attached. Other things make you feel appreciated, but there’s something very distinctly different, I think, about an artist-in-residency. There is something physically that’s an honor, something physically that happens, a profound feeling of respect from one’s peers.”
Phil Block recalls Martone as “a classic model” of the caliber of photographer/artist they were seeking the residencies. “ A photographer of limited experience didn’t fit.” he elaborates.”They had to have a proven commitment to the field - a track record of five to ten years, even longer. Now we might even say a ‘mid-career’ artist, but with no upper age limit… Tom and I have always been interested in those difficult mavericks in the world, like Clarence (John Laughlin)”
“Block and Bryan make no bones about the way they make their decisions in regard to residencies. “To a great extent, it was a benevolent dictatorship,” Block volunteers. “We felt we had catholic tastes, and an overview of the field. The decisions were made by the entire board.” Many people they sought out directly on the basis of work they had seen in exhibitions and/or publications. Word of mouth, or recommendation from others in the field whom they respected, brought different names to their attention. “But we couldn’t close the door to the brilliant artist with no connections. We encouraged anybody and everybody to apply.”
”There’s no real aesthetic that’s come about through Light Work,” Black adds; “we don’t have a mission in that regard. We’re not about that.” Indeed, a scan of the list of alumni, who now number over 60 reveals an unusual eclecticism with no apparent stylistic bias. Block himself points, with chagrin, to the gender imbalance of that list, however. “Women who are free to come for a month are hard to find. We were always trying to find more women to have in the program.”
By and large, those people who were selected fall into three primary categories: those who wanted to work on printing existing negatives, those who wanted to work on printing existing negatives, those who wanted to photograph in the Syracuse area; and those who wanted to make new work in a studio situation, such as Jim Casabere, Peter DeLory, and Cindy Sherman, who was a resident artist before fame struck her. Sherman produced some of her “film-stills” series of self-portraits during her stay in Syracuse.
What these artists-in-residence receive from the program is direct, tangible support. As Tom Bryan puts it, “For most of them, it’s the first, maybe the last time that somebody’s going to pay them for a month to be an artist and treat them like an artist, instead of just a regular guy living down the block... I think the heaviest week of their ‘residency’ is the week they get home, when they’re just Joe Asshole again in Dayton, Ohio, after being an artist for a month. They have to come back and fit into their life again.”
Jeff Hoone, LW/CD’s new director, expands on this: “people start bodies of work here, or turn around things that they’re doing, because they have that whole month. For the first time since they were students - if they were ever students - have the luxury to say, ‘This is my time; I can do anything I want with it.’ The month is extended into several months, sometimes even years, of activity.”
What the artists return to their hosts is perhaps less tangible but hardly unimportant. It is their presence as models of the artist at work. Ted Diamond, a young local photographer, cites the importance to his development of being invited by several of the residents to go out photographing with them. One regrant recipient Mima Cataldo, believes that contact with the resident artists “made Syracuse seem more sophisticated than it really is...They really did help me to go back to do more work.” This is why Tom Bryan calls it “an unofficial mentor system, without the participation of the mentor.”
Though they take particular pride in the A.I.R. program, neither Block nor Bryan is possessive about it. Bryan insists that the combination of an A.I.R. program and a community darkroom or art production facility “should be going on in every town in the country, and I don’t understand why it isn’t. There are only a couple of places that have tried it...We pay artists to make art - not to talk about it, not to teach it, but to come and do it. That seems so obvious to me - that that’s the proper way to want to support artists. We don’t want to own that idea; I would have liked to see that idea spontaneously arise, but it didn’t. That’s why we’ve always had good support from state and federal agencies.
“I’m beginning to see now, at this distance, the influence we had in New York State on organizations in all the visual arts, not just photography. Everybody knows about Light Work. So maybe part of its audience was the people who serve artists. I think we broke some new ground in the philosophy of how you serve an artist.”
By 1980, the redefined project was fully implemented. Local photographers were receiving direct support through the regrant program. A varied exhibition series which covered the spectrum of current trends while also showcasing such neglected or little-known figures as surrealist photographer Vilem Kriz, writer/collagist Fielding Dawson, and the peripatetic Tom Zimmermann kept the local arts and photography audience abreast of the field. The community of working photographers in the region was enriched through contact with some 15-20 artists-in-residence each year, who in turn received the unique support for their work which that situation offered. Contact Sheet kept the national photography community alerted to what was happening in Syracuse. Bryan and Block, whose interest had come to include experimental poetry and fiction, even found time to initiate a series of readings by such writes as Ed Sanders, Bern Porter, and Ed Dom. The grants system was using LW/CD as a model. Salaries in the organization were more considerable than ever, and assured.
That’s when Bryan and Block began to phase themselves out.
The transformation was undertaken gradually and systematically. Jeff Hoone, a native Syracusan, who’d been working at Light Work, was the first viable candidate for the directorship they’d found. Bryan discloses, “If Jeff hadn’t worked out, I think it would be over - I think we would have closed it. We treated the transition really seriously, because we saw the places that hadn’t treated it well going down.”
After putting in motion plans for the initiation of Hoone’s training and the formation of a working board of directors, Block went to London for a year while Bryan trained Hoone. Block returned to guide Hoone through a second year’s training, while Bryan stepped aside. Then with the board in place and Hoone fully knowledgeable about the organization, they left.
“Tom and I got tired,” Block acknowledges. “I think that was because we were repeating ourselves. But I think that was due to our own limits; we realized it, and decided it was time to change. That’s when we left. The Program continues to grow and evolve; it still retains its vitality because the people who are involved with it now have a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of ideas, When you’re in motion; it’s very easy to stay in motion. And I have to say that we’re not treading water…I had learned enough so that I wasn’t making any mistakes; I know how to do it; I knew the formula. It’s now time for them to make, not my mistakes, but new ones, their own - to do some dumb things, different things, and learn from the program as much as I learned.”
This attitude toward error, the acceptance of failure as a learning experience, the embrace of organization as process, is the hallmark of the style that Phil Block and Tom Bryan created. Their collaboration taught them much about each other, and themselves. What they shared was a love of photography, a dedication to those who were seriously committed to the medium, a fascination with the creative process, and an eagerness to learn. “I used Light Work as a vehicle for me - Phil Block - to learn about photography and to learn about photographers.” says Block, who now heads the Education Program at the International Center for Photography in New York City. Tom Bryan’s version of the lesson is different: “I once explained to someone that I had spent eight years learning how to see, which to my mind was the basic lesson of photography. So if that’s the bottom line, now I’m out here with something to look at: trying to run a farm in a complex business society; trying to keep my politics intact yet be an entrepreneur in a capitalist system… All that training in the arts now comes to fruition, because now I can see. Now I can look at something and see it really clearly. I don’t mean see it prettily; I mean see it for what it is. That’s what I learned, above all.”
The transition is not yet over. Some of the fundamental premises are changing, in fact. The project’s continuation will depend on many factors, prominent among them the definition of its scope. For better or worse, the heyday of the organization devoted exclusively to photography may be over. As the late Lee Witkin once said to me, “It may be time to let go of keeping photography as a medium all to itself, and let it go into the large sea of art where it properly belongs.”
Richard Laughlin predicts such a future. As he sees it, “We’re headed out of photography, Light Work will not be a photography place for ever and ever.”
Though, like Laughlin, Jeff Hoone is himself a photographer, in his role as director he, too, seems to hint at a broader definition of the organization’s mandate for the future. “In the late ‘60s early 70s, at the time we started, photography was on the cutting edge of things,” he points out. “Photography was the young punk on the street - it was new. I don’t think it is anymore though I don’t think anything else is... One of the reasons Light Work has been around so long is that we’ve avoided the pitfall of becoming locked into one set of ideas about how we define photography. The main thread, from the start, has always been that we’re an artist-support system, one way or another. That’s our goal for the future: to continue to support artists in the production of their work on a basic level.”
Hoone places considerable emphasis on the centrality of the local regrant program, which currently provides $500 grants each year to photographers who live within a ten-county radius of Syracuse. “I think we owe something to the area we live in. We owe something to Syracuse University. We owe something to the community of Syracuse that’s allowed us to exist around here for so long.”
That may be the Syracusan-born-and-raised talking, but is also may be the future of Light Work/Community Darkrooms, whose midwives were from out of town but which is no less a native for all that. This organization has rooted itself where it was planted; for over a decade it has flourished and been nourished by the photographers, artists and general public of Central New York State. Now, when popular, governmental, and corporate support for the arts is being systematically rethought, it makes sense that long-lived, well organized, highly acclaimed arts programs should look to its own region in redefining its sense of purpose. Certainly that would please Phil Block and Tom Bryan, whose love for the region is deep. This collection of photographs, contributed by the photographers who were served by Light Work during their tenure, forms a collage “portrait” of the first decade of Light Work’s activities. Beyond that, however, it is a gift for Syracuse and a statement about it. To Phil Block, “The history of Light Work, the ‘papers’ of Light Work, aren’t really important. They’re of no consequence. What’s really important is the work that’s been produced here. We’ve always wanted artists who’ve been through the program to leave a trace of Light Work’s activities for the community as a core collection. We hope it acts as a catalyst for further collecting of local photographers, or photographers who’ve photographed in and around Syracuse.”
Tom Bryan likes to think of it as a time capsule. “I don’t care if they show it now.” he insists. I think it’s going to be exciting in fifty years, when somebody cracks it open and looks. If a lot of the work can be about Syracuse, that’s nice. Like Charlie Gatewood’s ‘Human Pincushion.’ There’s nothing in that picture that says Syracuse. It’s his style and his thing. But then the cation says, ‘State Fair, Syracuse’ That’s the image I want. I don’t want a document of Syracuse.” Or in Phil Block’s phrase. “ All the projects end up being about what Light Work is about.”
This collection of images and texts is one of those projects: a cumulative testament to the impact on photography of a small arts organization in Syracuse, New York, and a response by photographers to the experience of living and working in Syracuse and its environs. And, We don’t have to wait fifty years. We can crack it open now.
Staten Island, New York
November 1984/June 1985
This story will begin , as did my involvement, with a large, promising, empty space and crates of shiny, new darkroom sinks, tables, counters, enlargers, and assorted photographic equipment. The place was a Syracuse University dormitory dining hall that had had one too many sewage backups in the food prep area. How Light Work/Community Darkrooms came about materially is an altogether separate story, My brief tale is about the ideas that shaped a visual arts organization typical of the 1970’s.
I was rather loosely “hired,” at no pay, as was Phil Block. We spent that first summer, 1972, unpacking equipment and setting up. Beyond this rather obvious task, we had to invent why this place was here. Who was to use it? Who would pay the operating expenses? How could we generate enough cash to pay ourselves a salary?
Phil and I had never met. He had a crew cut and an MG. I had braids and a VW bus. We were both born in mid-August, had vastly different ideas on everything and we both wanted our own way. He actually was a photographer, knew some history, and lept up with what was happening in photography around the nation. He had a working knowledge of photographic hardware and the ability to mat and frame prints so that they looked like real art. I knew all about Lin Piao and the Pathet Lao. I could be counted on to take over the college administration building at regular intervals to demand things like a million dollars for the Black Panthers. What I lacked in practical skills, Ii made up in zeal. I wanted to put all this equipment at the publics disposal at a subminimal price.
I named the place Community Darkrooms (a moniker that became a generic name across the country), and we opened in September 1972. We offered unlimited photolab use, seven days and most nights a week, at the rate of $35 for four months. Our policy of low prices proved to cast in iron. Thirteen years later, the user fee ($50 for four months) has not even kept pace with inflation. We attracted about 100 members and began to pay ourselves $2.50 an hour. We hired our first two assistants, Suzanne Stephens and Andy Buck. I don’t think we ever missed a payroll.
Our first expansive move was to gussy up the entrance hallway that led from the loading dock to all occupants of our building. Phil renamed it “The Goldfish Gallery and opened with exhibitions by Buck, Carl Geiger, and himself. The gallery was eventually refitted with fabric walls, carpeting, and track lighting. After the first year, as a way of making contact with the larger photographic world, we decided to exhibit works primarily by artists outside our area. The gallery was much like similar reclaimed hallways across the country. Fifty years from now, researchers comparing the exhibition histories of major museums with dolled-up spaces such as ours - the Midtown Y in New York city, CEPA in Buffalo, and others, will readily see where the excitement was. We were exploiting the flexibility and unpretentiousness of our situation to show new works by new artists as swell as works by older artists who were being ignored by the mainstream institutions.
In any account of those early days, the other occupants of our building warrant some comment. There was Synapse, one of the first experimental video centers in the nation. Along with artists - Bill Viola, Carl Geiger, Bob Burns, and Lance Wisniewski, Synapse drew in outsiders with the offer of excellent working facilities (Nam June Paik, William Wegman, Dennis Oppenheim, Juan Downey, Richard Kostelanetz, Charlotte Morman). There was also Jabberwocky across the street. Always featured there was the best in music by younger artists as well as the likes of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Then there was Watson Theatre, adjacent to our space, offering theatre, film, music, and video festivals, as well as presentations by artists associated with our own programs. The people who ran these various activities did more than work near one another. Many lived together, and we all ate together, constantly banging ideas off each other.
Soon enough we also began to make our own contacts outside Syracuse. Our early experience with artists taught us a great deal about the direction we eventually took. Our first invitation was extended to Les Krims for a weekend workshop. He accepted, but before he arrived the Creative Artists Public Service Program (CAPS) called to ask if we would host Larry Fink for a three-day meet-the-public affair. Fink flew in from New York City, riding high on his first grant award and somewhat expecting a red carpet at the airport. I put him up at my communal house where the bed was too hard, the food a bit strange, and the handholding meditation before meals gave him the creeps. He retaliated with smelly cigars halfway through dinner. At Light Work, we installed an exhibition of his photographs and introduced him to locals. The pictures we showed were portraits of the Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble and of his wife, the painter, Joan Snyder. As the last one went up, he stepped back and pronounced them “better than anything Stieglitz did of O’Keefe.” Years later, as our friendship continued, he talked about “beginning to feel my niche in the history of photography.” We could have laughed all this off and elected to work only with the affable types. But there was something about the misfits. The edge in their work seemed linked to an edge in their personality. We learned that being able to accomodate was as important as matting pictures and designing posters. And we soon consciously decided to involve artists that many other organizations were avoiding.
When Krims finally arrived, we got him a motel room. We made arrangements to use an abandoned house for his workshop, hiring male and female nude models. To our surprise, about 70 photographers attended, frantically shooting film and printing on Kodalith paper. By Monday morning we had 70 Krims clones on our hands (local photographers now knew how to make Krimsographs) and Krims had $400 in his pocket. Syracuse photographers had taken a step away from their own work and we hadn’t helped Krims with anything.
The problem was half-way easy to solve. Subsequent workshops had teachers like Melissa Shook, Charles Harbutt, and Joe Jachna, all very gifted in helping artists discover their own visual voice. We had improved the system so that local photographers were benefitting, but we still weren’t helping the visiting artists at all.
The next move would require substantial money from outside sources. Synapse, our video counterpart, was already pursuing funding from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), and we too, applied. The process helped to articulate what it was we wanted to do.
Part of the NYSCA application procedure involves a site visit by their staff. Ostensibly, this visit ascertains what kind of facilities exist and what the local art scene looks like. More to the point, it gives the NYSCA staff a chance to meet the applicants and find out whether the lights are on and if anyone’s home. Phil and I anxiously awaited Jim Reinish’s arrival. We had no idea what to expect, but when he walked in wearing the same shoes pants, and shirt as Phil, we sighed that old sigh of relief. Jim, like most staffers of visual arts funding organizations, was simply interested in supporting organizations that help artists make art. He got his tour of the place, his questions answered, and we three retired to Phil’s back porch for iced-tea and tomato sandwiches. Light work received $5000 from the first application, $10,000 the next year, and nearly $15,000 the next. I think NYSCA was delighted with a young arts organization that would do a full year’s worth of programming on that kind of money.
With this support, we were able to bring in photographers like Duane Michaels, W. Eugene Smith, and Jill Freedman. They drew large audiences, and some of the excitement carried over to our normal exhibitions of more importance.
In 1976, we exhibited Clarence John Laughlin in conjunction with a week-long visit by him. We had read Jonathon Williams’ piece on him in the Aperture Monographs, so we were somewhat prepared for the eccentric:”All Eyes...his psychic antennae, like a dowser’s rod.”
Laughlin arrived by train, carrying hundreds of pounds of luggage, mostly matted prints of which he would show no more than a handful at a time. The attention he was receiving as a photographer was of no importance to him. Too little and far too late. Much of his visit was devoted to visiting as many used book stores as we could find. Then there were the science fiction writers in the area to meet, and all of the city’s architecture had to be seen.
In that week I learned more about book collection, architectural detail, incessant curiosity, and proper use of the eyes than in any year of my life. We realized that photography was not what we really were about; curiosity and expression, done photographically, were the real issues. It was an important distinction and perhaps did more to shape Light Work’s future direction than any other event. We also realized that meeting our heros and learning from them was better than holding them in awe from afar. We soon had Roy DeCarava, Marion Post Wolcott, Vilem Kriz, Fred McDarrah, Brassai, and Fielding Dawson.
Our methods of serving artists had evolved considerably. Besides one-person exhibitions at our gallery, Light Work had assumed the duties of curator of photography at Syracuse’s Everson Museum. We had also finally developed our own version of an artist-in-residence program.
Our volunteer efforts at the Everson enabled us to take on much more comprehensive exhibitions, and to assist the museum in its collection of work. Here we could deal with both large scale regional shows and with sustained looks at smaller groups of area artists. We could bring together large selections by Brandt, Brassai and Bravo, and we could present career retrospectives of artists like Marion Post Wolcott. Our long involvement with offset lithography and with xerography were both summarized here in major shows and catalogues.
The artists’ residencies proved to be Light Work’s major contribution to the field. They were and are, deceptively simple in design. Artists were paid a thousand dollars a month to make art, not talk about it, not to teach it. They were given keys to an apartment when needed. Some got therapeutic dose of criticism as well.
Charles Gatewood was the first photographer to take us up on the residency, coming during late summer to photograph the side shows at the state fair. Here he made the picture he calls “The Human Pincushion,”a turning point in his career that led him to do the work for which he has become well-known. Perhaps it was our own dumb luck that this first in a long line of artist residents should experience a high-gear shift, and do it while photographing our own little region of the world. From that point on we always tried to accommodate those artists who were best matched with the “content” of the Syracuse area. Conversely, during the dead of winter of which we have plenty, we tried to accommodate those artists in need of studio or darkroom time.
When we had a keen interest in an artist for whom the residency was either inappropriate or unworkable, our flexibility as an artist-run space allowed us to take the residency stipend and develop some project that would benefit the artist and bring their work to the public’s attention. Such was the case with the poet Ed Sanders and with the novelist Fielding Dawson.
The Dawson project proved to be the most personally rewarding and important thing I accomplished in my ten years. I had been reading Fielding Dawson’s fiction for years, thanks to the prompting of an old friend, Sam Hemmingway. Most of Dawson’s books contained cover illustrations that were dreamy, unsettling collages made of bits of magazine and newspaper photographs. After Laughlin’s visit, I decided to declare these things to be photography, looked up FD in the Manhattan directory, and wrote a letter proposing an exhibition. Dawson took to the idea. He had always considered himself a visual artist; in fact, he had gone to Black Mountain College as a painter in the early 1950’s. Yet he had not had a one-man show in twenty years. After my initial visit to his loft, he insisted that the show consist of entirely new work and in the next year produced a large number of new collages. Together we selected about 50 pieces to exhibit.
The collages themselves were crude items, fragments of images frm widely varying sources, glued to whatever was at hand. I brought them back to Syracuse where Phil mounted them , and we hung a handsome exhibition accompanied by a catalogue and presented Dawson himself reading his short stories. Today Dawson continues to produce collages, has gone ahead with a new body of paintings, and exhibits frequently. As it turns out, we did each other a big favor. And hopefully, we gave something to our audience which prompted them to question, and to question again.
While preparing for Dawson’s show, I contacted Jonathon Williams, publisher of Jargon Society books, who had co-authored and published Dawson’s collages in 1958; The Empire Finals at Verona. This was the largest published collection of Dawson’s collages, it was long out of print, and would make, I thought, a nice accessory to the show. Wiliams immediately sent back a copy, and arrived in person within a few months just to see who in Syracuse, New York was concerned with such matters. Williams, we learned, had been doing precisely this for thirty years, criss-crossing the USA and England, turning over rocks, sniffing breezes, and searching out the curious. In photography alone he had done much to bring public attention to Laughlin, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Art Sinsabough and Lye Bonge, and had included photographs by Frederick Sommer, Harry Callahan, and many others in books of poetry. Williams’ contagious curiosity further convinced us that our own role included turning over rocks and sniffing the breeze for that scent of genius lurking. It meant paying a bit less attention to the continuing stream of artists who were on the grant circuit and instead following leads to that artist somewhere who will never think to apply, who doesn’t have a resume, who can take your $1000 and buy materials and still make three months rent when the residency is over. You get so you know one when you see one. There at the bus stop, fedora on head, boom box in hand, nodding to the beat.
That’s part of what life was like in the artist-run-spaces of the 1970’s. The artist-run world seems different to me today. More stability for those who survived, more career artists looking for opportunities. But real curiosity and real expression remain. There’s a history here, but also a future.
Erieville New York