An exhibition at the Center for Creative Photography celebrates LIGHT Gallery, a pioneer in the exhibition of fine-art photography.
With photographs selling at auction for millions of dollars, art fairs dedicated entirely to the medium of photography, and galleries galore selling everything from daguerreotypes to digital C-prints, it’s hard to remember that not too long ago, there was virtually no commercial market for photography. Until the 1970s, when photographs were sold it was usually by their creators, as works of journalism, illustration, or portraiture. Museums such as MoMA purchased photographs, but they paid very little. Photography collectors were hobbyists swapping prints with each other. One of the key players in changing all that was the LIGHT Gallery, a New York commercial establishment that courageously championed contemporary fine-art photography. Though it lasted only 16 years, from 1971 to 1987, LIGHT helped build a community of photographers and collectors, and some of its employees went on to become influential dealers in their own right who moved the photography market forward. Most notable among these LIGHT alumni are Peter MacGill, Robert Mann, Laurence Miller, and Rick Wester.
Now through May 19, the legacy of the LIGHT Gallery is being examined and celebrated in an exhibition at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “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 gained recognition during the gallery’s life span, 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 will be accompanied by a documentary film, “LIGHT: When Photography Was Undiscovered, 1971–1987,” by Lisa Immordino Vreeland. The Center for Creative Photography is the ideal venue for this exhibition. Founded in 1975 by Ansel Adams and University of Arizona president John Schaefer, the CCP’s first director was Harold Jones, who had been LIGHT’s first director. Furthermore, among the 279 archives that the CCP possesses are those of the LIGHT Gallery itself, as well as those of photographers who were represented by the gallery, including Callahan, Siskind, Winogrand, and Wyn Bullock.
LIGHT was founded by Tennyson Schad, a New York copyright lawyer with a passion for photography that developed while he was editorial counsel at Time Inc. in the ’60s. His wife, Fern, was a picture editor at Life magazine. In 1970, she recalled, her husband suddenly got the idea that photography was a collectible. At first Schad was thinking mainly in terms of the kind of photojournalism that Life made famous, but a photo editor there steered him toward Callahan, Siskind, and similar artists in the medium. Eventually LIGHT gave the young Robert Mapplethorpe his first show. But not all of its exhibitions were devoted to cutting-edge contemporary photography; Jones, who had previously worked at the Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., mounted the first solo show of Paul Strand since the days when Alfred Stieglitz had a gallery.
Primarily, though, LIGHT’s mission was to show the work of photographers who were not famous, whose work simply appealed to Schad and his directors. Accessibility was a core value; LIGHT stored prints in flat files and made them available to visitors so they could go through the available inventory in an easy and informal way. Among the habitués of LIGHT were such enthusiasts as the collector Sam Wagstaff, Patti Smith, members of Andy Warhol’s factory, and Diane Keaton. Peter MacGill, who was LIGHT’s first intern in 1973 and director in 1979–80 and opened his own gallery in 1983, recalls, “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.”
One of the innovative things the gallery did, right from the beginning, was to treat photographers the same way galleries treated painters, representing their work, promoting them through books and limited editions, and handling all the mundane details like mounting, framing, packing—things that photographers used to have to do all for themselves. The only other entity that took such good care of photographers was the Magnum agency, and that was exclusively for photojournalists placing their work in publications. Representation by LIGHT was a new route for artists working in the medium of photography to making a living from their work and getting acceptance for it in the larger art world.
Eventually, LIGHT fell victim to over-expansion. In 1976, it moved from its original address at 1018 Madison Avenue to larger quarters at 724 Fifth Avenue. Robert Mann, the gallery’s last director, was hired by Schad in 1983 with the mandate to “liquidate the inventory or resurrect” the gallery. He ended up seeing it through four more years. After it closed its doors in 1987, the Schads continued to deal privately from their home. Tennyson Schad died of cancer at 70 in 2001. The photographers and other alumni of LIGHT went out into the world, bringing with them the sense of mission about photography and the eye for quality they developed there. A conceptual graphic on view in the exhibition shows, in the form of dots and lines, the connections between LIGHT and the photographers, curators, and institutions that it worked with and influenced. With LIGHT at the center, radiating lines of force, it looks like a galaxy expanding in space.
“LIGHT Gallery played a critical role in photography’s legitimization and pioneered new approaches to its sale and presentation,” says Rebecca Senf, Chief Curator of the CCP. “There is no question that LIGHT made an undeniable and lasting impact on the way photography is understood today.”
By John Dorfman