Just about everyone who has a cell phone is a photographer, which is good news for taking fun pictures but bad news for those who believe photography is an art. Yes, it is included as a valid art form in juried exhibitions and it has its place in most of the cooperative galleries in the area, but Through This Lens is the only commercial gallery in the entire Triangle devoted exclusively to photography. Photography competitions are almost non-existent. In fact, the Will Grossman Memorial Photo Competition, now in its fifth year, is the only one in North Carolina.
Grossman was an avid photographer and ran a camera store that was a haven for fellow photographers before the advent of the telephone camera. He was a community activist, a gallery director and a loving husband and father, but was the happiest when he had hoisted his camera over his shoulder and taken off to shoot the world around him. Five years ago Grossman’s family decided to honor him with a competition for photographers. Roylee Duvall, the director of Through This Lens gallery, agreed to coordinate it, offered his gallery space, and so the show began. Gossip had the fifth year as the last year, but the response was so overwhelmingly positive that Duvall told me when Lynn Grossman, Will’s widow, said to her kids, “Want to do it one more year?” They all said, “Yes.”
This year’s theme was “your best shot” and the images cover just about anything and everything; some date back, others are as current as today’s news. Although entry fees cover some of the costs, the Grossman family plus some friends handle all the rest and the prizes are significant. First prize is $1,000, second is $500, third is $250 and there are two honorable mentions and a people’s choice, all with cash awards.
Duvall said the huge turnout — over 150 images — was almost too much to handle, especially since all entries are hung. However, the gallery looks wonderful with the photographs hung salon style. The images have been loosely divided into such themes as cars, nature, people, abstracts. As Duvall pointed out the winners, he told me a bit about the image or the artist. Rhonda Klevansky’s “Upside Down” won first prize. It was taken on a trip to Ethiopia. She was riding in a jeep, turned the corner and there it was, like a dead beetle, lying upside down on a lonely expanse of road.
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In second place is Eric Raddatz’s “Memory’s Dying Dream #7,” 2010, a tiny photograph of an elderly woman lying in bed and the words, “She lays back and drifts off to sleep. Morphine visions, dying dreams,” surround the image. Raddatz is a hospice chaplain, but this woman is a member of his family. Third place went to J.J. Raia for “First Light, Hunting Island, State Park, S. C.,” a seascape. There are photographs of Obama and Trump and one, taken by Donald Hughes when he was 17, of a car that was part of John Kennedy’s funeral.
These pictures are not about light and shadow, f-stops or sharp versus soft focus; they tell a story and we can relate to them. “This competition is about the celebration of photography; it’s accessible to anybody. I like to see people get involved,” Duvall said. “Penny on Edge,” taken by Connell Green with a flip-phone, is a good example. “He was able to set the coin on a piece of wood and take that picture,” Duvall said. “We gave him a small grant to have the picture framed. That’s what I mean by accessibility.”
Photographic competitions are good for the medium and good for the general public. The Grossman family have started an important tradition; hopefully there will be enough general interest to set up a small trust so the competition can become a regular event.
From Through This Lens toward Five Points is Pleiades, a cooperative gallery with about nine to 10 active members, who have set a back-breaking schedule for themselves. They plan regular theme shows which demand new work. The current one, titled “Water Is…,” celebrates a basic resource which must be maintained and improved, like the local waterway, Ellerbe Creek. They also have several large invitationals where outside artists are invited to join with them. “Truth to Power,” in its fifth year, will be coming up in July.
Upstairs is a small space where members and non-members are invited to mount solo exhibitions. This month’s guest artist is Eric Wolken, a relatively new member to the cooperative. Members sit on the gallery and Wolken happened to be there when I walked in. The water show is announced on the entrance wall with a large sign over a vintage water connection, created by Wolken. Among the images are Kim Wheaton’s water spilling over outstretched hands and Mark Abercrombe’s boat splashed in water that reflects the colors of the rainbow.
Wolken is a master wood craftsman. Pictures of his hand-designed furniture are spectacular. Although he still makes furniture on commission, he is now rethinking his wood into smaller objects and putting them on the wall or setting them onto pedestals. His combination of woods, his use of paint to add more interest and his shapes have a fresh feel. Most of the objects are abstracts, but several support a narrative. For example “Life Vest 1-8,” is made of delicate wood shaped into a thin jacket with inlaid photographs of a woman on each side. I see it as a work of gratitude to a woman in his past or perhaps she is the mother figure we all should thank.
Photography, wood sculpture and paintings, all remind us how art makes our lives just a little more beautiful. In the light of new budget cuts to Wake County’s public school education, our children will miss so much.
Email Blue Greenberg at email@example.com.
▪ “2017 Will Grossman Memorial Photo Competition,” Through This Lens Gallery, 303 E. Chapel Hill St., through May 13.
▪ “Erik A. Wolken,” Pleiades Gallery, 109 E. Chapel Hill St., through April 30; “Water Is…,” Pleiades Gallery, through May 7.