The Short, Hectic Life of a Photo Group

In October, 1981, in a desperate attempt to get a growing, clamoring horde of voracious photographers off her back, Anne Tucker, the Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, sat down at her typewriter and whipped out a little note calling interested parties to sit down at the Paradise Bar and Grill to have a few drinks and figure out what to do. The Cronin Gallery had ceased to be a photography gallery and the number of people wanting to show work was so much greater than the space available that a crisis had arisen.

About thirty-five people showed up late in the day on October 14th, and within minutes the Houston Center for Photography was born. By the end of that meeting, it was quite a different creature than perhaps any of the individuals had envisioned. While the critical need was for gallery space, other needs surfaced as photographers around the tables reeled off a shopping list of dreams: galleries, lectures, workshops, a library, touring exhibitions, restaurants, bars…But mostly what everybody seemed to want was community. Some place where photographers could hang around with each other and begin to raise all this scattered photographic endeavor to a fever pitch.

The work shown has included a juried exhibition of local work, a moving document of a favorite grandfather's last year and death, and a rare exhibit of the work of early Texas photographers from the collections of the Karris County Heritage Society and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center. There has also been a show of the work of actor Dennis Hopper and a look at documentarian Fred Baldwin’s first photographic essay, Saturday Sight in Reidsville, Ga. 1957. In December, the exhibit Pictures from an Auction, mounted at the Rice Media Center, included work donated to the Center by many of America’s most prestigious photographers.

Now. barely seventeen months later, the Center has burned out half a dozen of its founding members, but it’s gained a gallery, meeting space, nearly 170 members, a pretty good chunk of money, and a lot of experience.

The Center has housed six major exhibitions since its opening in July, 1982, as well as half a dozen smaller shows of local work in the new Members' Gallery. It has also mounted an exhibition at the Rice Media Center and another in the Houston Independent School District headquarters building and will curate another at the University of Houston at Clear Lake in the Spring of 1983. About 1,800 people have seen the nearly 900 photographs the Center has displayed so far.

The first exhibit of 1983 featured photographs by thirty-four photographers from all over the United States, including such accomplished artists as Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Ralph Gibson, Barbara Crane, and Robert Mapplethorpe. The current exhibit is a powerful essay from Houston, London, Japan, Vietnam, and Australia on the effects of the chemical "Agent Orange." The next show will be a juried exhibit of the Center's first national competition, followed by the Second Annual Members’ Exhibition.

The Center hopes to be able to provide better and more secure space for some of the great photographic exhibits that fail to get to Houston and to originate shows here that would travel to other cities. Both of these expansive activities will require corporate and foundation underwriting.
One of the goals of the Center is to provide educational opportunities to a larger public. To this end, the HCP has sponsored public lectures by such photographic figures as William Eggleston, Geoff Winningham, Fred Baldwin, Wendy Watress, and David Mancini. Other lectures have covered topics including photographers and the subject's right to privacy, Houston photographers before 1900, and using a camera in Russia.

This Spring, an intensive, four-week public lecture series on image-making will bring together painters, sculptors, printers, photographers, and other artists to explore the mysteries of image-making. Speakers in the series will include Gael Stack, George Krause, Peter Brown, Anne Tucker, and half a dozen other scholars and artists.

The next step is to bring distinguished speakers to Houston from other parts of the world. The Center has begun to seek financial help to make this possible.

An important aspect of the Center's work is the continuing education of photographers, whether they're amateurs or professionals. Workshops held to date have covered such diverse topics as the dye transfer color priming process, photographers as filmmakers, the study of the nude, documentary photography, the use of infrared materials, and platinum printing. In the Spring there will be workshops on subjects including the Ansel Adams Zone System and black-and-white print toning.

Next year, the Center will try to bring one or two nationally known photographers to Houston for intensive three- and five-day workshops. This will require a substantial expansion of the workshops budget and financial aid is being sought for this purpose.

Early in HCP's existence a small group of photographers began searching for a way to use documentary photography to enrich their own experience and to take a serious look at some of the city's social problems and the people in various organizations who try to solve them. From that idea has come the Houston Center for Photography Documentary Awards Program.

Three awards of $1000 each will be given to photographers to pursue ongoing documentary projects. It is intended that the photographs which come out of this project be useful to the organizations under study, whether for their own documentation, for slide presentations, or for brochures and reports that might help secure these efforts. The HCP has begun to search for funding, services, and materials to support this excellent project.

In March, the Center for Photography began to publish this magazine, Image, which will be widely distributed free to schools, clubs, and individuals interested in the subject. The intention is to provide a vehicle for photographic discourse in the region and to give the many superb local photographers and photographic scholars a place in which to explore this most universal of ill art forms.

Indications of corporate support for photographic education will be sought in the form of advertising in the publication.

Since its founding the Center has received strong support from the community. Members will contribute about 25 percent of the 1982/1983 budget. The Cultural Arts Council's panels gave the HCP a powerful boost with an unusually large grant for a first-year organization. Nearly 200 photographers from all over the country donated prints for the Center's auction. And a few individuals and foundations have begun making contributions. These are the 1982/ 83 funding highlights so far:
· $12,590 from the Cultural Arts Council.
· $22,000 from the photo auction.
· $3,850 in contributions from foundations and individuals.
· $3,400 in contributions from members in the first quarter.

All of these gains have not come without substantial effort by many people. It seems fairly crazy to refer to last summer as "the early days." but it's the case that nearly all the activity that has worn down so many really only started then. The first HCP president, Paul Hester, and vice president, Sharon Stewart, managed this unruly mob of photographers to produce The First Exhibition: A Show of Members' Work.

Hester and then-president-elect Dave Crossley began at that time to write a proposal for a grant from the Cultural Arts Council, and vice president-elect Patsy Arcidiacono began forming the important Advisory Hoard, which now includes Anne Tucker, Dr. William Camfield, Muffy McLanahan, Mary Margaret Hansen, Anne Bohnn, Amanda Whitaker, Sally Horrigan, and Wei-i Chiu.

Since those beginnings, the Center has been transformed into a large organization with 24 people serving in volunteer positions and no telling how many more performing various tasks to keep everything going. This month, the Center will hire its first employee, an administrative director, and,after a year and half of using various members’ phone numbers, will actually get a telephone. There are plans for more gallery space and a large darkroom and mounting facility.

Meetings are held twice each month, with a business meeting and special program alternating with a meeting specifically for presentation and discussion of members' work. The Center is located at 1440 Harold at the Bering Methodist Church, upstairs in the cast wing. Meetings begin at 7:30 p.m. on the first Monday and third Thursday of each month. For more information call (713) 523-­5757.