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The Legacy Of LIGHT, New York City’s First Photo Gallery

From 1971-1987 New York’s pioneering LIGHT gallery was the epicenter of fine-art photography at a time when photography was still not widely considered a true art form. The first art gallery in New York to focus solely on photography, LIGHT’s photo exhibitions attracted the attention of Robert Mapplethorpe, collector/curator Sam Wagstaff, Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd, Diane Keaton and Vicente Wolf.  LIGHT’s impact is still felt throughout photography, thanks to the influential photographers it championed and the photo dealers who trained there.

“The Qualities of LIGHT: The Story of a Pioneering New York City Photography Gallery” will showcase the work of more than 20 photographers whose work rose to prominence during the gallery’s 16-year run, including Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, Linda Connor, Emmet Gowin, Betty Hahn, Eikoh Hosoe, Ray Metzker, Duane Michals, Stephen Shore, Aaron Siskind, and Garry Winogrand.

The exhibition is hosted by The Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona and draws heavily on the center’s archives. The show coincides with the debut of a short documentary film, LIGHT: When Photography Was Undiscovered, 1971-1987, by filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland.

The museum exhibit is accompanied by a dedicated app. It will layer the archival images with audio and documents, allowing visitors in gallery and those at a distance to explore the exhibition in more depth.

The LIGHT Gallery’s extensive legacy continues through the work of four former staff members who now own their own photography galleries: Robert Mann of Robert Mann Gallery; Peter MacGill of Pace/MacGill Gallery, Laurence Miller of Laurence Miller Gallery, and Rick Wester of Rick Wester Fine Art.

The Qualities of LIGHT includes work by contemporary photographers represented by the four New York City gallery owners who worked at LIGHT, including Christopher Colville, Lilly McElroy, Eric Pickersgill, Donna Ruff, JoAnn Verburg, and Cassandra Zampini.

LIGHT Gallery was known for their flat files, which made the gallery inventory accessible to visitors, and the exhibition will offer photographs by contemporary photographers in flat files that can be handled by visitors. The exhibition will also map the influence of LIGHT Gallery with a photography network map outlining the interconnected-ness of LIGHT’s community and the central position it occupied in relation to museums, galleries, and universities in New York and across the country. A LIGHT Lab will provide an interactive space with catalogues, news articles, a workshop for contributing to the network map, a digital space for further exploring the exhibition content, and related material about the Gallery’s storied role.

Peter MacGill says, “LIGHT was a community. Nobody had anything to gain, other than linking arms and being together. The more we did that, the more strength we felt, and the more strength we felt, the better job we could do.”

Nearly 50 years later, the field of photography has grown exponentially. Although there are more people working in photography, many of them can trace their own histories back to  the community surrounding LIGHT. “The Qualities of LIGHT” provides a lens to show how a cultural movement took shape, who the players were, and how ultimately, acceptance for photography as a fine-art was won.

–Samantha Reinders

“The Qualities of LIGHT: The Story of a Pioneering New York City
Photography Gallery”
The Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Arizona
Through May 9, 2020
In January 2020 The Center for Creative Photography will host a symposium around the exhibition – register here

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