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The Big Picture
By David Brickman

Musings on the history of the Photography Regional


Journalistic ethics will not permit me to write a review of this year’s Photography Regional—you see, we’re in a relationship. In fact, the show and I go way back. And, through the years, whether I submitted or not, whether I was accepted or rejected or, as in this year’s case, disqualified—we’ve remained pretty close.

Though I wasn’t there when the show was spawned, I know the story. Pissed off because the Mohawk-Hudson Regional did not accept photography as an art category (after all, this was only 1979), a few eager, enlightened local photographers got together with a couple of still-fledgling community-oriented arts organizations to create a new juried show.

The Rensselaer County Council for the Arts in Troy was the host that year and Ralph Gibson was the judge; the show drew several hundred submissions and one of the cofounders, Martin Benjamin, took first prize. In addition to selecting the pictures in the show and the prize-winners among those, Gibson gave a slide talk about his work, a tradition by the juror that has continued. I can’t recall if the submissions were all hung salon-style before the judging (I was still in college at the time and probably missed the action, though I did manage to submit and had two photos selected), but I’m certain this was done the second year, when the show bounced to its other sponsor, Albany Center Galleries, with the irrepressibly populist Les Urbach at the helm.

As different ideas about how to plan and present the show have come up over the decades, the salon is probably the most polarizing, but I think it’s a keeper because it’s so democratic, and especially because it gives everybody the opportunity to second-guess the judge.

With or without the salon, the show had a lot of fans in the early years, when nobody was too keen on showing serious photography anywhere, but a lot of people were busy making it; getting a big-name judge to come scrutinize our work and then talk about their own was stimulating and it got the community out together to argue over stuff we cared about. Of course, there were always the folks who only liked the show if they were in it, and bitched endlessly if they weren’t. As I got in the show every year for the first 12, and had won a few prizes, that wasn’t me.

But I did have a big gripe. It had to do with a side-effect the show had on the exhibition rosters of the two sponsoring galleries. The problem was, they would consciously leave all other photo shows off their calendars the years they had the regional because, after all, everybody knows more than one photography show at a given gallery in a given year is simply not done. So, instead of serious photography shows at these two precious spaces, we got the massive hodgepodge that the regional was virtually guaranteed to be—and practically nothing else in the way of photography.

After 10 or 15 years of this, and no real evolution, I began to think the show had outlived its usefulness. The photographers had grown, the scene was expanding, mature bodies of work were being produced locally and often shown elsewhere, and we still had this once-a-year amateurish droolfest with Mary Ellen Mark or some such idol. Others disagreed, saying it was a crucial venue for younger photographers getting their first exhibition opportunity. Meetings were organized, discussions were had, and the show went on.

Then, at the RCCA, where major state grant money was paying for some programming, a new dilemma came up: They were constrained by NYSCA from charging artists an entry fee to show there, and couldn’t afford to do the show without the fees (those celebrity jurors didn’t come cheap). The solution they arrived at was to have an invitational. So, that year (1997), everyone who had ever won a prize in the show and could still be tracked down was invited to submit a few pieces for guaranteed inclusion (space permitting).

In response to there being no juried show that year, the editors of Metroland mounted one of their own at the Rice Gallery of the Albany Institute of History and Art (in a tasty bit of turnaround, the AIHA was one of those that had originally barred photography from their regional), which attracted new faces to a strong show that balanced the RCCA’s excellent exhibition of established names. Almost incidentally, several years before that (1992, I think) the Mohawk-Hudson Regional had begun to accept photography submissions, and photographs immediately became a regularly accepted part of that show.

By the late ’90s, things had gotten a little shakier for the photography regional. Albany Center Galleries, with Urbach still in charge, would soon receive a double blow to its basic existence as Urbach became too sick to work, then died, and the gallery was booted out of its city-sponsored space downtown. When it landed at a much smaller venue in the main branch of the Albany Public Library, it didn’t seem the show would physically fit there. And the RCCA, by now fully transformed into the slick, new Arts Center of the Capital Region, abandoned the event as a white elephant.

Enter Susan Myers, who somehow singlehandedly saved the show from drowning, holding it first at the Fulton Street Gallery in 2000, which being member- supported suited the grass-roots sense of the show’s beginnings, then in 2001 with Sharon Bates at the Albany International Airport Gallery, which gave the regional fresh prestige. After another stop in 2002 at Fulton Street, the show returned to Albany under the auspices of Jim Richard Wilson at the Opalka Gallery of the Sage Colleges, returned again to Fulton Street and has now been reclaimed by original sponsor Albany Center Galleries despite the smaller library location.

Here’s where I come back into the story. Last summer, then-Center Galleries Director Charles Semowich asked me to judge the show this year. For about two hours I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Then I tried to imagine everyone’s reactions. Maybe they could accept me selecting the show, but I couldn’t see me being the speaker. All along, one of the premises of the regional was that it would bring in an outside person to view the work, and that person would infuse us with new energy and new ideas at the talk.

So I called Semowich and made a suggestion. I had recently gotten to know the director of the George Eastman House museum of photography in Rochester. Anthony Bannon had acquired some of my work for the collection there, he was a real nice guy and I thought I could persuade him to judge the show. Semowich agreed, so did Bannon, and we had our outside judge.

Too bad for me that, months later, when Bannon saw I had submitted work, he decided it was a conflict of interest and had the gallery refund my entry fee. Which, as I already said, means I can’t write about the show.

It also means I couldn’t join the new grass-roots movement, in which all refused artists were invited to submit to another show organized by included photographer Shaina Marron. Titled Welcome, it will run through May 13 at the Capital Region Gay and Lesbian Center’s Romaine Brooks Gallery (332 Hudson Ave) in Albany (open every Wednesday and Sunday from 7 to 10 PM).

As for the photo regional, which has its reception at 5:30 tonight, I will be there and I hope you will be, too. Tony Bannon is speaking at the gallery at 7, presumably to provide some kind of focal point before the prizes, wine and arguments have started to overflow. One topic of discussion is likely to be the plan for next year’s regional—it will be at the Opalka for the second time, and I have it on good authority that director Wilson intends to make it both a curated invitational and a juried show. I can’t wait to hear what people have to say about that.

Anthony Garner, Michael Heroux and Kersten Lörcher

Fulton Street Gallery, through April 9

Sorry for the late notice, but if you can get to the Fulton Street Gallery by Saturday, this is a show worth seeing. It combines the work of three more-or-less new artists on the scene who ply diverse media but share the common ground of abstract figuration.

Heroux, who paints in built-up layers of black and gray gouache on little canvas panels, then groups them in grids of four, occupies the rear loft of the gallery, where the subtlety of his work can be enjoyed in quiet intimacy. The paintings are purely formal, suggestive of pieces of bone, or nudes, or stones—like fragments of unearthed Greek marbles. It’s a really nice debut for this self-taught artist.

Garner, an architect and furniture designer, has created a site-specific installation consisting of two monumentally-scaled wooden structures modeled after Japanese kimonos. The first of the two confronts the gallery-goer at the entrance, then guides you inside and embraces you, as the second spreads winglike arms to carry you along. I found the two pieces together a bit too imposing for the narrow gallery, but was impressed by their high level of design and craftsmanship in common materials.

Lörcher is also an architect. He has created an extended suite of color photographs taken during the dismantling process of a Troy landmark, the tremendous, facially graffittoed King Fuels tank. What Lörcher found in this subject was a scale-resistant landscape of twisted metal, sometimes gritty and fragmented, more often lyrically gestural. The work verges on complete abstraction, except in a couple of instances where figures can be seen and the almost incomprehensible vastness of the subject is revealed. It’s a fine body of work.

—David Brickman

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