Paying homage to a photographer who saw Durham through his lens

Apr. 24, 2014 @ 09:13 AM

“2nd Annual Will Grossman Memorial Photo Competition,”
Through This Lens gallery, 303 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham, through May 10.

There are a lot of people who love Durham and North Carolina, but no group is more enamored of our area than photographers, and the Will Grossman competition has been organized to encourage that love. This year’s theme was “People, Places and Things in North Carolina.” All photographs must be made in the state.  Beyond that rule, the artists could interpret those guidelines any way they wanted. 
Walking through the gallery there are many images of places or events we recognize; the first-place winner is just that. In “Food Truck Program,” Bill Pope shows us a food truck open for business. A big pole intersects the truck and a store next door and several cars move slowly, the unseen riders deciding whether to order or not. As realistic as the “Food Truck” is John Gallagher’s second-place winner, “Meditations on Archie,” is just the opposite. Gallagher’s photograph looks like an X-ray of a dog’s head. 
Roylee Duvall, the gallery director, and a major force in organizing this competition, said Gallagher is an artist who loves to manipulate his techniques and it is not clear whether this is an X-ray or something else.  In any event, the judges were intrigued enough to give it a top award.
This year’s panel of judges has expertise in the field and art in general and attests to the high quality of work chosen. The judges are Roger Manley, director of Gregg Museum, N.C. State University; Alex Harris, founder of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies; and Chris Ogden, photographer and winner of the first Will Grossman award. The prizes are significant, with the first place award of $1,000.
Among the photographs are portraits which include Christer Berg’s “Ben Williams,” who spoke for the North Carolina Museum of Art for years; Brady Lambert’s “John Blackfeather;” a proud, contemporary chief; and Todd Tinkham’s “Untitled,” a beautiful girl dressed in an outfit of feathers. There are also still-lifes like Bryce Bates’ “Preparation,” a collage which comes together as a portrait of a Santa Claus; Roberta Wallace’s Polaroid of “Old Spectacles”; and Eric Raddatz’ abstract still life, which, on closer study, turns out to be the shaft of a pen and some sort of button set beside an indistinguishable object. 
Speaking of Wallace’s use of Polaroid, Duvall said Polaroid film is almost impossible to find and when a photographer finds some, there are unbelievable problems because the quality has been so compromised.
Jessica Berkowitz, a student at Duke, received an Honorable Mention for her narratives which could be meditations on the 15th century during the time of the plague. Berkowitz builds tiny sets, complete with furniture, pictures on the walls and chairs. One scene is infested with rats, another with lizards. Her images are hazy and blurry, but no less chilling; is this simply the past reimagined or a premonition of a time yet to come?
There are also the families that are out on the town; parents comfortable in their portly shapes, holding tight to their eager kids, and two old-timers showing off big turtles before making them into soup.
Duvall said the artists have varied backgrounds; Pope with the winning photograph sells his photos in postcard format at the farmers market. Gallagher, whose image of Archie won second place, is a Duke administrator who travels and spends lots of time in hotel rooms. At the end of the day, Duvall suspects, Gallagher works on his photographs as one way to relieve the boredom of a night in a hotel.
About a third of the entrants are women; age-wise the two largest groups are in their 20s to mid-30s and those who are retired. Every technique is represented from black-and-white film and dark room development to telephone images. Duvall said most of the entrants have been photographers for a long time, a few are professional photographers and a few are students, and all are very serious about their photography. 
This competition is a testament to a man and his love of Durham and North Carolina.  Will Grossman (1945-2012) was born in Czernowitz, Ukraine, the son of Holocaust survivors, and grew up in Romania, Israel and Brooklyn, N.Y. Early on he learned how to use watercolors and oils, but after his first photography class he fell in love with the camera. His camera of choice was a twin lens reflex Yoshica D. He did undergraduate work at Brooklyn College and earned his M.Ed. from N.C. State. In 1971 he moved to Durham with his wife, Lynn, and adopted Durham as his own. He was the owner of Northgate Camera Center and later the director of operations of the Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina, where he was active in promoting Jewish art at the Rosenzweig Gallery of Judea Reform Congregation. 
In an online blurb, Grossman said he watched Durham change from a city with a lively downtown to one of shopping malls and before it totally disappeared he was determined to record as much of it as he could. No one is a photographer in the Triangle without knowing Duvall and, after Grossman became ill, the two talked about an exhibition that would encourage Durham and North Carolina photographers to continue taking pictures of the local and state scene. It was that wish, plus that of his family and friends, that has produced the funds to make this competition possible.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.