New York Photo Review
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Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
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Soho Photo 40th Anniversary Panel
Left to right:  A.D. Coleman, moderator; Mark Haven, Sonia Katchian, Lee Romero, Jill Freedman, Catherine Utrillo, Harvey Stein.  by © Norman Borden.
Left to right: A.D. Coleman, Mark Haven, Sonia Katchian, Lee Romero, Jill Freedman, Catherine Ursillo, and Harvey Stein.   photo © Norman Borden

Forty years ago, a couple of young New York Times photographers along with a few other photojournalists got tired of looking for a gallery to show their personal work and decided to start their own. They found a 2,500 square foot space on Prince Street with a rent of $400 and called it Soho Photo. The gallery not only survived, but grew to become the largest photo co-operative in New York City.

As part of its 40th anniversary celebration this April, Soho Photo, now located in Tribeca, invited six of its founding members to participate in a 90-minute panel discussion on April 14 moderated by A.D. Coleman, the well-known photography critic, author and blogger. The panelists included Lee Romero, New York Times photographer and a founder of Soho Photo; Jill Freedman, documentary photographer and author of seven books; Mark Haven, professor of photography at Rochester Institute of Technology; Harvey Stein, instructor at ICP and the School of Visual Arts and author of five books; Catherine Ursillo, freelance photographer; and Sonia Katchian, freelance photojournalist.

It was, by all accounts, a night to remember, and undoubtedly brought back a wave of memories for the mostly gray-haired SRO audience. A.D. Coleman began by putting Soho Photo’s establishment in 1971 in context by mentioning three developments that made the 1970s the heyday of alternative gallery spaces. Namely, track lighting, freshly painted white or grey walls, and sectional aluminum frames that permitted photos to be hung without pushpins. Gallery names long gone and almost forgotten–Light, Witkin and Neikrug, pioneers that had helped make photography an acknowledged art form as well as help set the stage for Soho Photo’s founding – were mentioned.

Jill Freedman  by © Norman  Borden.
© Norman Borden, "Jill Freedman " 2011

Lee Romero, who started it all, told how Cornell Capa had offered to help support the gallery, but, then, at the last minute, backed out to create the International Center of Photography. He did, however, pay the first month’s rent. Romero, telling story after story of the gallery’s beginnings, recounted how there was no portfolio review of aspiring members’ work. If you had the $35 annual dues, you were in. The members gathered for weekly meetings to show their latest work to each other. There were thematic group shows, solo exhibitions and, as Harvey Stein observed, “Being able to meet other photographers and show my work gave me permission to become a photographer and change careers.” Jill Freedman, famous for her street photography, told how she had once sold her photographs across the street from the Whitney Museum. So the idea of having her own wall in a gallery had great appeal as did the freedom. Her first show was “Resurrection City” and A.D. Coleman reviewed it favorably in the New York Times.

The question of whether a photo co-op could be launched today, and whether there was a need for it given the existence of the Internet and self-publishing, drew varied responses. A.D. Coleman felt the cost of real estate today made it prohibitive. Mark Haven didn’t know if a gallery still had relevance since all of his students have web sites and use Facebook, etc. to get their work out. However,

he did say, “They still enjoy putting their pictures on the wall.” Sonia Katchian thought photographs looked better on a wall than on a screen. Coleman agreed, “As a critic, I don’t care for seeing pictures on the web unless they’re made for it.”

In one of the evening’s more heated discussions, the panelists talked about the effect of having to print limited editions as a way to make photographs more collectible. A.D. Coleman explained that collectors felt that because photography was reproducible, its value was diminished. That began the era of the limited editions; the panelists, Jill Freedman in particular, decried their existence because limited editions prevented a variant of an image being created 20 years later.

It was, all in all, an educational, entertaining and memorable evening that did, in fact, celebrate the creation and surprising success of Soho Photo.

Soho Photo 40th Anniversary Panel by Norman Borden

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