Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Gordon Stettinius

The Kiernan Gallery is pleased to have GordonStettinius as juror for our upcoming exhibition, Portfolio Showcase. Gordon is the Owner and Publisher of Candela Books and Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, as well as a prolific photographer. Here he speaks about his various projects in his own words.

Candela Books and Gallery fills a niche in Richmond for photography. How has the gallery impacted and influenced the community in the years since it opened?
Candela has slipped into the scene pretty nicely, I feel, in Richmond. The fact that we feature only photographic work allows us to compete a little less with the more established galleries. All of the better galleries in town feature photographers occasionally and often those photographers are local and regional and we have an excellent community of photographers. So, my hope is to bring notable photographers to town and I really have managed to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes with this mission. The only local photographer we have featured has been Susan Worsham and that is because Susan had never had a solo show in Richmond at that point and, weirdly, she just wasn’t known and understood as well as she should be in her hometown. She is special, I feel, and I think people in the larger photography world are getting that, but in Richmond the old guard and the collectors still needed a proper introduction.
There is a very strong gallery scene here and there are some new developments within the Downtown Arts District and within the Virginia Commonwealth University communities that have me pretty excited. Our neighborhood and my experience teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University have us pretty well plugged into that community also. And we have some significant collectors in Richmond too that I believe appreciate the level of discourse we are giving to photography as a medium. All in all, I feel that things have been setting up really nicely for a longer run for us. And to say that, I have to share my appreciation for all the support we have received also. The creation of these businesses has been an education I have to say.
Book publishing is a tremendous undertaking. How did you get into publishing and what do you look for when considering new titles?
There is a longer story here that I am not very good at abbreviating. But the first book we published was a monograph of the beautiful work of Gita Lenz. Lenz worked as an artist and photographer in New York from the late 40s to the mid 60s and through a mutual friend, I had the opportunity to get to know her work. She was getting ready to move into an assisted living situation in New York City back in 2002, so my friend, Timothy Bartling, and I decided to move her work to Richmond for safekeeping because I had the room to absorb her archive. At that point, we were not aware of any close relatives though that would change and we would later need to create a formal agreement with a niece and nephew.
It was all a little by chance but it was the quality of Gita’s work which had me continuing to research possibilities for it. And Gita was not getting any younger. She was already in her 90s when we met and she didn’t really have a sense of what I was up to, or rather, she would forget our conversations between visits. But the pride in her work was evident every time that I visited and brought her prints along. And when Gita worked as a photographer, she had accomplished several career highlights. She was included, in 1951, in the Abstraction in Photography show, edited by Edward Steichen at the MoMA. She was also in the Family of Man exhibition and had other work in museum collections and at the New York Public Library and so on. She was also a writer and an intellectual so it is safe to say that she was a dedicated thinker and artist.
I found her to be a really compelling and interesting person and yet she had still struggled to maintain her career. So, I became attached to her essentially and after we managed to get Tom Gitterman, of Gitterman Gallery in New York, interested in her work, I started to look into what it would take to get a book published. I shopped it around to several publishers but ultimately decided to publish the book myself and timed it to coincide with a solo show at Gitterman Gallery. It was a really nice moment for all of us. Gita passed away the next year at 100 years old.
So that is the beginning of Candela, the imprint, and after that chapter, I began fishing around thinking it would be good to follow that experience in publishing with another monograph. And that is another story.

As Owner of Candela Books and Gallery, you must receive many portfolio submissions. What is that you look for when contacted by artists looking to exhibit their work?
Professionalism is good but not absolutely necessary -- if you are amazing. Humility is good but not absolutely necessary – but is more fun to hang out with people who exist within themselves.
Each photographer meeting or review is a new possible relationship and the fit that we have or don’t have is really important. So, it is good clue that someone seems to have a sense of what I am interested in or something I have done at least. There should be a reason you are reaching out to me even if I am 50th on your ideal gallery/publisher list. There still needs to be some kind of sense. And it helps when you appear thoughtful.
And if that sounds one-sided, sometimes the shoe is on the other foot, too, and I am approaching artists who have no idea who I am or what the gallery is about. So, there needs to be a respectful, concise approach. It is not a binary world of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ because there are several ways in which these initial meetings might go. Sometimes your meeting turns into a connection with a third party. I like hooking people up when I can, mostly because I can only do so many things.
Timing is near impossible to understand from someone else’s point of view but you can try to catch a gallerist somewhere in a sweet spot when there isn’t an opening that night or a major fair next week. Working in this world is not the hardest job there is, not by a long shot, but there is always a lot of work to do and so those meetings with photographers ‘passing through town’ really are taking time from something else. So a photographer should pick their spots as carefully as they can.

What is your pet peeve when an artist contacts you looking to exhibit their work?
It is not really a pet peeve but the “Have a look at my website…” suggestion is potentially chilling. The thing is, websites are powerful marketing and archive tools and the experience of visiting a website can be a rewarding one BUT when a website essentially attempts to make a case for everything a photographer has done, is doing and hopes to do I really don’t even want to open that overstuffed cabinet of curiosities. It would be one thing if we are best friends and I had infinite patience for you.
But honestly I expect a submission to be about something. A particular body of work that a photographer feels is a match for me somehow. If you catch me at a portfolio review, I will gladly look and respond to anything and I like to be of some use to everyone I meet in that context. I enjoy connecting folks. But when you submit a link to a website that has your last eleven projects on it… I am really ready to pass right away. It shows how little you understand what I am drawn to. I will click on a few things, and I will be more than ready to get back to all of the other things that I also need to get done.
Some websites do avoid this trap. And those will present a concise take on a project or two which is fine as it shows your seriousness with regard to those projects.
Now that said, this doesn’t get me riled up and I have a few sentences reserved for people who submit this way. But it is a lazy way of doing things, simply expecting your all-encompassing online archive to open doors. Having a sense of how a gallery or publishing relationship is really more like a collaboration is essential.

Putting together a body of work is complex. In your opinion, what are the most common mistakes photographers make in their edits or presentation?
Jesus, Kat. I am not sure I can answer this one generally. Having work in front of me and listening to how a photographer speaks about their work and their intentions and then trying to calibrate those thoughts with what I see is where my thoughts begin.
Maybe this -- Some people are too wedded to a guiding project concept that the images sort of serve as illustration of the project statement rather than as striking visual content in their own right. So the project statement constructs a reality in which the photographs are just citizens working for the cause. Images, for me, need dynamic strength independent from the concept. And then sometimes, dynamic images don’t fit and those have to go. It is subtle really. And sometimes the statement or concept needs a small change to better fit the work, which will enhance other people’s understanding also.

Photographers often find themselves being lumped into categories and trends. How do you respond to “trendy” work?
I like alternative process. That is getting pretty trendy about now. But I like it. I used to like it. I suspect I will always be a sucker for grit and dirt and fingerprints. But cool process is meaningless still, for me, if there isn’t some intellectual content or narrative tension. I love singular images and I love projects but the key ingredient is generally the idea behind the work. The trend part is window dressing really. I like certain styles but not to the extent that I forget about what the work is about.

Your own work incorporates toy cameras and traditional printing techniques. What is it about these tools that interests you?
Hmmm. I have always been a fairly steady player, trying to build a career but occasionally lapsing into a mixed-media idea for a season or two or some other uncharacteristic detour. And I will occasionally add a new tool but I still have never stopped shooting the Rolleiflex – my second camera, after the noble Nikon FM2 student era- I bought in the 80’s. Toy cameras came about for me just after college, in 1990, while living in Tucson. I haven’t stopped shooting those either. With those, I enjoy the absence of total control, I think. The romantic veneer of the diffusion is also pretty attractive when it doesn’t go overboard. But as I said above, there still needs to be content.
Lately, I have been making some larger archival pigment prints from film scans and/or digital images. But for me, the fact that I can use my phone while I am printing on the Epson bugs me just a little, even while I kind of love it. For me, it all began in a darkroom and I like working there still. The phone can wait, as it already has taken over most of the rest of my life.

Your work is often humorous and very clever, which is a difficult feat, what is your process like when you are out in the world with your toy cameras?
I enjoy people. I enjoy people I love, my family and they are always around and easy to find. Sometimes, I need to remind myself to make certain family photos. But I also enjoy making documents of our time… protests, gatherings, sporting events, sub-cultures. And for some of those threads, I need to read the paper, the weeklies, the internet, and touch base with certain friends.
So, as a rule, I have a camera nearby. But then there are times when I am out to shoot with intention. It takes a little planning or scheduling to get on the road and so that is a deliberate act and finds me trying to get the best out of two days in Pittsburgh at a Furry convention. Or in Daytona for Bike Week, etc.
My wife and I had a new baby girl this past February, so I suspect I am reentering a closer to home phase with less spectacle and more spitup. It has been a while since I have lived with a little one and it will be a pleasure to look at life through a little girl’s eyes. This will be something new for me and I am excited about it.

How has your experience as a curator affected you as an artist?
I don’t consider myself to be a curator. I feel that word has lost much of its significance due to the legion of self-proclaimed curators who really are more internet gatherers, selectors, collectors, jurors. But there are times when I am editor or consultant or juror.
The word ‘curate’ is tempting to use when I am fashioning an exhibition, polishing a concept and researching artists to support the concept aesthetically and intellectually. But where I think I fall short of the mantle of curator, besides the advanced degree, is that I am almost never writing a thorough – and publishable - discourse of the subject at hand and placing it within the larger art historical context, along with citations of previous historians and critical concerns related to presentation and provenance and materials. In short, the refinement implied by the title is absent in the popular version of ‘curator’ with which so many self-label themselves.
Now, I really do feel that curators are people too. I don’t feel they belong in an ivory tower and I like our community best when curators and photographers and gallerists and editors all realize that they depend upon each other. But I feel the actual curators’ status is undermined by the casual use of the word ‘curate’ as it pertains to internet aggregators and casual enthusiasts.
It is not unlike how easy it is now to consider oneself a photographer. Or to have a CV that has five pages of Image of the Day on HeyI’maPhotographer.com or somewhere such. It is harder for those for whom imagery and the history of image-making is important to distinguish themselves from the instagram folks who are equally dedicated and energetic on behalf of their audiences. And most of us have made the mistake of becoming too enamored of internet opportunities. There just isn’t much there. Or I am growing old and crusty. Or both.
Hell, as to your question, I don’t know. I am not really a curator but I am doing a number of arts professional type tasks. I guess that I am more of a desk jockey on some days than I would like to be. And I have way too much correspondence to deal with. As an artist, I used to leave myself alone to simply do stuff more often. So, now my short-term goal is to achieve a little more balance. I am not quite centered but I will give myself credit for the solid creative work Candela is either doing or enabling. There is some creativity within the enterprise actually so I do enjoy it too on most days.
And then, I am still trying to kick my own career and projects down the road. And the upside there is that it can be helpful having a bird’s eye view of more of the work being done out there in the world. That does feed the art brain.

The deadline to submit work for Portfolio Showcase 2014 is May 22. Visit KiernanGallery.com for more information.

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