SoHo Photo

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A thriving downtown photography cooperative is celebrating its 40th anniversary with an exhibition of photos by some of its founding members.  The group’s deep roots are still reflected in its pictures and its practices.  WNYC’s Sara Fishko has more...

Above: David Chalk discusses the early days...


Sometimes you just have to fling open the doors to make something happen.  That was the theory behind Soho Photo, the cooperative photographers’ gallery that opened in 1971. It was a co-op sort of moment.  Food co-ops, residential co-ops, co-op childcare centers were springing up around the five boroughs.  Why NOT a photo co-op? Founder David Chalk, who was excitedly shooting pictures in New York, couldn’t find a place to exhibit his work...

David Chalk: There were a few galleries –but unless you were a very established photographer it was almost impossible to get a show.

Catherine Ursillo was there at the beginning, too.  She remembers taking her camera to the Columbia University demonstrations of 1968, and the Hard Hat riot on Wall Street in 1970. But even with news-worthy photos, it was hard to make an impact...

Catherine Ursillo: People I don’t think were really looking at photography the way they do today.  And so it wasn’t really that important.

So 7 photographers found a good exhibition spot downtown—2500 square feet. Lee Romero, another founder, and a New York Times photographer then and now, recalls the only problem was they couldn’t come up with the 400 dollars a month rent. 

Lee Romero: So we opened it up, put an ad in the paper, and at least 60 to 80 photographers showed up with their portfolios. And it was just so overwhelming that instead of just looking at all the portfolios – we just decided that everyone could be a member.  And that’s how it started. 

They lifted the gates.  They took the curator OUT of the equation, at least in the beginning...

Romero: Anybody showed up with pictures, paid the dues, they were in the show. And there were members that really resented that.

Why the resentment?

Romero: I think they thought it brought the quality of the gallery down.

Lee Romero was running the place at the time, and he thought it brought the gallery UP. At that point, it wasn’t about competition.

Romero: It was really to provide an opportunity for people that wanted to see what they could do. I’ve never been a fan of contests or anything like that.

Soho Photo has progressed since then, to a gallery that is more curated, and is also larger. But it is still a co-op, with the same purpose: to provide a space and a sense of community for otherwise solitary photo-makers...

Chalk: The worst thing for a photographer is to work in a vacuum.  So here you could put prints up on the wall every month.  It was like a sounding board for your work.  You would get nice feedback. And sometimes not so nice feedback. 

Nowadays, picture taking AND exhibiting present new challenges...

Romero: I think the respect has now finally been achieved.  But I think the true problem is the public in general is inundated with images. If anything people are jaded in some ways.  I watch them at galleries and they basically walk right by things so quickly.

                                                                                                            The SoHo Photo bathroom

So making photography count is STILL the work of Soho Photo.  Now 110 members strong, the co-op continues to operate out of a renovated egg-storage facility on White Street, that has been its home for the last quarter of a century.  To have survived the urban, cultural and economic ups and downs here in New York for 40 years -- is a cooperative triumph in itself.

For WNYC, I’m Sara Fishko




The first sign goes up at the SoHo Photo gallery

WNYC Production Credits...

Mix Engineer: Wayne Shulmister

Assistant Producer: Laura Mayer

Managing Editor, WNYC News: Karen Frillmann