On a table in Gallery D, copies of Contact Sheet, Light Work’s quarterly publication, are on display for visitors to read. Photo by Yolanda Stewart | Central Current.

Event Details:

50th Anniversary is on display until May 14 at the Everson Museum 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

“50th Anniversary: Selections from Light Work Collection,” on display at the Everson Museum, celebrates five decades of connections between Light Work, an independent, non-profit gallery on the Syracuse University campus, and dozens of photographers. 

The exhibition, in galleries C and D at the museum, presents over 100 images by photographers working in various genres.

It encompasses Jen Davis, whose photos focus on notions of body image and identity; Chan Chao who documented rebels fighting against Burma’s military regime; William Earle Williams, noted for photographing locales associated with the Underground Railroad, abolitionists, and Black soldiers in the Civil War. 

Those three artists represent just a small fraction of the roster of photographers with images in Light Work’s permanent collection. Over the past 50 years, the gallery’s staff has interacted with photographers who came to Syracuse for a one-month residency, with Central New Yorkers who received Light Work grants to further their work and with other artists who showed their photos at a Light Work venue. 

The current exhibit can only sample a collection consisting of over 4,000 photo prints and objects. Yet, it provides a coherent narrative of the gallery’s history.

For example, the show displays “Human Pin Cushion,” Charles Gatewood’s photo of a performer at the New York State Fair. Gatewood was the first artist-in-residence at Light Work. He’s best known for photography on the wild side — images of outlaw bikers, strip clubs, and raucous times during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. 

The State Fair has been a subject for other photographers visiting Syracuse. Doug Dubois, Steve Hirsch and Jim Goldberg all have photos of the fair in the Everson show. 

In addition, there are images of other Syracuse scenes — Elaine Mayes’ work portraying a snowy night; Anthony Hernandez’s photo depicting a solitary time in Columbus Circle; Jo Babcock’s shot of a statue on North Salina Street honoring Gustavus Sniper. He was a German-born Syracuse resident who rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general in the Union Army during the Civil War. 

The show also touches specifically on artists from this region who received Light Work grants. They include Laura Heyman, whose photos depicted life in Haiti, and Thilde Jensen who completed two documentary projects. One of Jensen’s projects detailed how she was sickened by exposure to chemicals; the other focused on people without a home in Syracuse and three other cities. 

“50th Anniversary,” it should be noted, displays a variety of documentary images. They include Corky Lee’s photo of the Chinatown neighborhood in New York City; Laura Cano’s shot of migrant farm workers in Oswego County; and “Three Placards,” Marilyn Nance’s image of an anti-apartheid rally in Washington, D.C. in 1986.

Beyond that, the exhibit points to Light Work’s occasional involvement with special projects like “Embracing Eatonville,” a photographic survey of Eatonville, Florida. A self-governing, all-Black municipality founded in 1887, it was the home of author, anthropologist and filmmaker Zora Neale Hurston for many years.

Over the course of a year, Carrie Mae Weems, Lonnie Graham, Deborah Willis and Dawoud Bey took photos in Eatonville; all four have images on display at the Everson. 

Finally, the show presents other photos that are noteworthy but vary greatly in style. Look for Courtney Frisse’s beautiful image of the Badlands in South Dakota, Willie Middlebrook’s photo with painterly overtones, for Roger Mertin’s shot of a Christmas tree. Mertin had a gift for photographing ordinary objects and creating incisive work. 

While “50th Anniversary” is clearly centered on the display of photos, it also presents a mass of memorabilia to trace Light Work’s history. Within a booth-like set-up in Gallery D, there’s a bunch of posters promoting exhibitions and other events;  numerous copies of “Contact Sheet,” Light Work’s quarterly publication; reviews of exhibitions that appeared in The Post-Standard, Syracuse New Times and other publications.

There’s also text and photos referencing members of the Light Work staff. They include co-founders Tom Bryant and Phil Block, as well as Jeffrey Hoone, the gallery’s director for 41 years, and Mary Lee Hodgens, associate director for many years. 

Although Light Work’s primary mission has to do with photos and photographers, the gallery is also home to the Urban Video Project. Since 2012, UVP, in partnership with the Everson Museum and Onondaga County, has projected films and videos on the museum’s north facade. “50th Anniversary” displays a selection of work by 22 artists involved with the video project.

The exhibition is large but not unwieldy, presents a variety of interesting photos, and subtly highlight’s Light Work’s ties to well known photographers. Carrie Mae Weems and Cindy Sherman were both emerging artists when they first interacted with the gallery; both went on to national recognition. And the show provides an informal survey of American photography over the past 50 years.

“50th Anniversary” is on display through May 14 at the Everson Museum, 401 Harrison St. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday, and from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $1 for people possessing an EBT card, and free for Everson members, children 12 years old and younger, and people with a military ID.

A keynote lecture linked to the exhibit will be delivered by Deborah Willis on April 13 at 6:30 pm. She’s a photographer, curator and author; her books include “The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship.”

For more information, call 315-474-6064 or visit everson.org

Carl Mellor wrote about visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 to 2019. He continues to cover exhibitions and artists in the Syracuse area. 


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