Publication Type:Journal Article
Source:Contact Sheet 97: 25th Anniversary Edition, Light Work Visual Studies Inc., Issue 1998, Syracuse, NY (1998)
Light Work's First 25 Years
This special edition of Contact Sheet commemorates Light Work's 25th Anniversary. On the following pages we will attempt to tell Light Work's story with photographs made by artists we have worked with since 1973, in essays contributed by artists and writers, and in the record of activities and events that have shaped this organization. Although this publication recounts Light Work's specific story it is told within the larger context of the artists' space movement in the United States, and how artist-run organizations have enriched contemporary art and the Culture of the late 20th century by breaking rules and responding to the needs of individual artists.
Light Work's story is entangled with the story of the artists' space movement which Gary Nickard outlines later in this catalogue. I will not dwell on that movement but begin with Light Work's specific story, which began in 1972 when a group of students and former students at Syracuse University successfully convinced administrators that there was a need on campus to establish a student media center consisting of a state-of-the-art photography lab and a fully equipped television station where students working on their own could have access to, and control of photography and video production equipment. That students had demanded a media center instead of a painting or sculpture center was as much a product of the times as it was of the collective experiences of those who stepped forward. That experience was cultivated around the television set as they watched with infected indignation as Walter Cronkite ended his nightly report with his trademark, "And that's the way it is." The collective experience became a singular voice yelling back at the screen, "No Walter that's not the way it is!" while asking each other, "What if people could listen to the stories we had to tell?" The desire to express an alternative voice was fueled further by powerful images from the media of students dead on the ground at Kent State, grainy pictures of bodies in a ditch at Mia Lai, Watts burning, and Martin Luther King preaching on the mall in Washington and dying on the balcony in Memphis. That desire was also informed by the discovery and rediscovery of the social power of W. Eugene Smith's photographic essays, the cool honesty of Walker Evans' FAA photographs, the epic proportions of Robert Frank's The Americans, the complexity of Diane Arbus' portraits of those on the edge of society, the energy of Gary Winogrand's street photographs, and the range of Roy DeCarava's images of African-Americans. These images mixed with the utopian ideals of Mao's Little Red Book, the auger of Ginsberg's Howl, and the romance of Kerouac's On the Road, and came together at a particular historical moment when a group of individuals, barely old enough to vote, came of age and decided that their time was now.
Two individuals stepped forward out of this moment to give shape to this new photography facility at Syracuse University. One was Phil Block, a psychology major who was drawn to the art and craft of photography through Minor White's Mirrors, Messages, and Manifestations and Edward Wesson's Day Books. The other was Tom Bryan, who entered photography through the lens of an activist as the editor of the student newspaper and prime mover and shaker of the anti-war movement on campus. The dialectic chemistry between Phil and Tom proved to be the perfect mix of art and politics that this new space needed to get on its feet. Phil and Tom decided that this facility would be open to both students and members of the larger Syracuse community, and that the users would support the operation of the facility by volunteering their services or by contributing nominal tees. The lab was named University Union Community Darkrooms (later shortened to Community Darkrooms) and soon had several hundred regular users.
The television station was organized separately and named University Union Television (UUTV). Several individuals involved with UUTV had formed a non-profit organization called Synapse and had started inviting artists from outside the region to work at this new facility and at the more sophisticated video facilities at the Newhouse School of Public Communications on campus. At that time the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) was also a young State funding agency interested in supporting more arts activities in Upstate New York, and Synapse became an early candidate for the Council's largess. Along with local artists Carl Geiger, Bill Viola, Bob Burns, and Lance Wisniewski, Synapse began working with artists such as Nam June Paik, William Wegman, Dennis Oppenheim, Juan Downey, Richard Kostelanetz, and Charlotte Murphy. Phil and Tom fed off the enthusiasm of Synapse's programs, and in 1973 formed Light Fork as a non-profit corporation, and soon secured funds from NYSCA to support a series of exhibitions, lectures, and workshops. In 197 they started a grant program for local photographers. The workshop program gradually gave way to the Artist-in-Residence Program in 1976, just about the time of the first issue of Contact Sheet. Within the first few years of operation the tone was set for Light Work as an organization that interpreted the field of photography in the broadest terms possible, listened to the needs of artists, and made things happen.
By 1980 the exhibition, Artist-in-Residence, and Light Work Grant programs were firmly in place, and the 15th issue of Contact Sheet had just gone to press. With steady finances, and a growing national reputation, Phil and Tom made the decision to gradually phase out their participation in the program. At that time I had just returned to Syracuse from California, where I had started an artists' space call the Xpress Art Center (an overblown name for a gallery I ran out of my loft), after a brief stint as a photography student at the San Francisco Art Institute. After my return to Syracuse, my home town, I began to spend a good deal of time at the Darkrooms printing my own work, attending events, and meeting the constant stream of visiting artists. I happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right attitude when Phil and Tom decided to move on. After a short period of time I was hired to replace Phil while he took a year off to study book binding in England. Phil and Tom took the transition seriously and after I had worked with Tom for a year, Phil returned and Tom left to work full-time on the sheep farm that he had started a few years earlier. Phil continued with my training for another year and then he left to run the Education Program at the International Center of Photography in New York, where he still works.
It probably should have been more intimidating for me to take over a successful organization from two charismatic, passionate, and visionary founding directors, but the blind enthusiasm of being twenty-five and idealistic, combined with Phil and Tom's generous training, gave me the start I needed to build on the programs they had laid out. What I didn't know about the field of photography (which at the time was substantial) I made up for with a strong belief in Light Work's commitment to support artists, and the belief that the best way to do that was to listen to what they had to say. I also realized that it was just as important to listen to how artists were saying things, and to pay attention to the voices of artists that weren't being heard by mainstream institutions. We had gravitated to artists who were taking risks, so as an organization we also had to take risks. We were giving artists the opportunity to succeed or fail, so we had to risk failure for the promise of new discoveries.
I kept this in mind when reviewing proposals for our Artist-in-Residence program, so the handwritten resumes listing cab driver as an occupation made a bigger impression than the neatly composed vitas of tenured professors. When an artist was doing something I didn't understand it offered up a better reason to check them out than to turn them away. When an artist made a suggestion I didn't have to run it by three committees in order to make it happen. When I realized that women and artists of color were not being adequately represented at Light Work I was able to quickly respond, and after a short period of time our programs were as diverse as any in the country.
Like the directors of most artists' spaces, I became infected with the creativity and energy of the artists we worked with so closely. Light Work didn't have the time, money, or inclination to create specialized jobs and responsibilities. In typical artists' space fashion, one or two people wrote the grants, matted the prints, hung them on the wall, wrote the press releases, designed the publications, wrote the essays, picked the artists up at the train station, swept the floors, and turned off the lights at the end of the day. Light Work now has four full-time staff, but we still do things the same way-listen to the artists, develop the plan, do the work, and don't forget to have a good time in the process.
I have grown up and grown old(er) at Light Work. It has occupied and enriched my entire adult life and provided me with my closest personal relationships. I met my wife, Carrie Mae Weems, at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester in 1987 and she participated in our Artist-in-Residence Program in 1988. My experience at Light Work also provided me with the pleasure of knowing the artist Jim Pomeroy and the pain of experiencing his sudden death in 1992. Much of my experience, and the experience of many others, is included in this 25th Anniversary issue of Contact Sheet. I hope it provides you with a sense of how artists can, and have, enriched our lives, and how Light Work and other artists' spaces have helped make the connection to individual artists an intimate experience by responding to their needs, providing a forum for their work, honoring their contributions, and listening to their stories.