The great German portrait photographer August Sander wrote, “In photography there are no shadows that cannot be illuminated.” Best known for his documentary-style portraits of working class Germans in the early twentieth century, Sander practiced his craft during a dark and transformative period in world history, and he suffered great personal and professional adversity in his lifetime. He lost his son and his home to war, and tens of thousands of his photographic negatives were later destroyed by fire. Still, he persevered, and much of his art survives.
Perhaps the story of Sander can teach us something about resilience in our own dark time. The coronavirus pandemic has brought both personal and professional loss to many over the last several months, and across the world people have had to adapt quickly to the crisis in order to survive. Many businesses and organizations have also been affected, and art galleries have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. At a time when we may look to the arts to help us through difficult times, many galleries have been forced to shut their doors to the public. And with their closure we also lose a vital connection with our communities.
LightBox Photographic Gallery in Astoria has not escaped the hardships that art galleries have faced during the pandemic. A beloved institution among photographic artists and patrons of the arts, LightBox has grown into a premier gallery for photo-based art since its opening just over a decade ago. The gallery’s stellar reputation is a testament to the vision, commitment and professionalism of its owners, Michael and Chelsea Granger, as they have continued to build their photography center. Both acknowledge that they could not have fulfilled their dream without the support and devotion of the gallery’s members, many of whom have stood by them since the beginning. This is the story of how LightBox has grown, how it has withstood the pandemic, and what it has meant to many of its members over the years.
LightBox Photographic Gallery opened in June 2009 with the first in a long succession of monthly exhibitions celebrating the work of photographic artists. Since its grand opening LightBox has become a Mecca for fine art photographers, particularly those who embrace the use of film, traditional photographic methods, and historical alternative printing techniques, but also for those who practice their craft using the finest in contemporary digital processes. With a guiding mission dedicated to the promotion of creative photography, the gallery has long been a venue for photographic artists to exhibit their work, share their vision, and inspire fellow photographers wishing to further develop their creative and technical skills. LightBox has served as a cherished community gathering place for photographers and patrons of the photographic arts, as well as a center for educating the public in current practices in fine art photography.
The Grangers moved from Portland to the coastal town of Astoria in the spring of 2008, determined to realize their dream of opening a gallery devoted to the photographic arts. Inspired by Barack Obama’s election that year, they set their plans in motion with a spirit of hope and the promise of a new beginning. In early 2009 the couple found their gallery space on Marine Drive, just a few steps away from the south shore of the Columbia River. Within a few months they converted the small two-story building into an inviting space designed to foster a sense of intimacy and comfort. They had imagined a congenial setting quite unlike the ubiquitous “white cube” gallery that patrons of the arts had come to expect, and they were now close to realizing their vision. All that was left was to figure out what to call the fledgling gallery. After brainstorming ideas, the couple each drew up their own short lists of favorites, finally settling on LightBox simply because it was the only name that appeared on both lists. And so, despite launching a business during a time of economic uncertainty in a community that had nothing like it at the time, the Grangers founded LightBox Photographic Gallery.
Since opening eleven years ago, LightBox has held over 140 group and solo photography exhibitions curated by invited jurors, the gallery owners, or exhibition committees organized by the gallery. Some of the group exhibitions are the result of juried, theme-based calls for submission. For example, the 2017 exhibition Nature’s Way (A Search for Beauty) explored the enduring splendor of the natural world in a time of peril for our planet. The 2019 show Dreaming In Color examined the ways in which photographers experience and communicate their use of color in the images they make. Many juried group exhibitions are regular events based on recurring themes or photographic styles, such as the annual Plastic Fantastic Show, featuring images made by film photographers using plastic “toy” cameras, as well as pinhole, box or homemade cameras. Other recurring shows include The Photographic Nude, exploring the human form; and PDX 30 or PDX 40, an annual exhibition honoring Portland photographers during Portland Photo Month each April.
In addition to juried group shows LightBox has presented scores of solo exhibitions featuring some of the finest photographers in the country representing a diverse array of photographic genres. The gallery also gives these photographers an opportunity to discuss their work in artist talks. And it maintains the annual LightBox Files, a year-long juried collection of photographs presented by eight photographers who have mastered the fine art of printmaking, each of whom is provided a dedicated drawer space in which to present their work. Among other special exhibits, LightBox also celebrates its members by showing their work in the annual Members Exhibit.
LightBox has also held occasional special events over the years. For example, the gallery hosted the 2019 LightBox Symposium for Alternative Process Photography, a three-day workshop featuring presenters specializing in various traditional printing techniques. The symposium included an accompanying juried exhibition titled Alternative Visions, which featured handmade prints made by photographers who use historical printing processes, such as cyanotype, gum bichromate, carbon transfer, photogravure, wet plate collodion, silver gelatin, tintype, platinum, among other traditional methods.
LightBox was established as an independent, family-owned business in the “mom and pop” tradition, with an organizational chart that includes only its two sole proprietors, and prides itself on functioning with complete independence, working within its own parameters for scheduling exhibitions, artist talks and other events. During each new monthly show, exhibiting photographers can offer their work for sale, and the gallery retains a commission on these sales. The gallery also provides printing, film processing, scanning, matting and framing, and photo restoration services. Michael Granger is a master printer who specializes in archival pigment ink prints, traditional black-and-white fiber prints, and custom chromogenic prints (C-prints).
LightBox is also partially funded by three levels of contribution. Subscribers opt among supporting, associate and guild membership categories, each of which offers various benefits. To assist during the pandemic, the gallery received a grant from the State of Oregon Small Business Relief Fund, managed by the Clatsop Economic Development Resources (CEDR) agency, and hopes to receive another COVID-19 relief grant from the agency soon.
Establishing LightBox has always felt like a tremendous achievement for Michael and Chelsea Granger, and the hard work involved in maintaining the gallery has been a constant labor of love. The couple have always been able to overcome the difficulties of running their small business. But the obstacles imposed by the coronavirus pandemic have made earlier challenges seem relatively insignificant. To find out how LightBox has been coping with the crisis, Oregon ArtsWatch caught up with Michael Granger via telephone and email to discuss the gallery’s current situation. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ArtsWatch: Many art galleries were forced to shut down normal operations to accommodate social distancing requirements or stay-at-home orders, especially early in the pandemic. Have you had to significantly adjust your operations as a result of the crisis?
Granger: Yes, we have, of course. Adjust may not be the best word, though. We were closed entirely to the public from March through July. We were compelled to cancel all of our workshops, meetings, artist talks and show openings, which we have not resumed. Basically, we’ve had to get out of the way, stand back and watch as everything we do as a brick-and-mortar gallery has been turned upside down. In my mind a gallery must have physical walls, good lighting and real prints to best enjoy photographic art. Viewing any medium of art online tends to diminish the overall experience. But while the space is vitally important, I consider the people who visit our exhibitions to be the heart and soul of LightBox. Nothing beats a gallery full of people interacting and sharing their experience with fellow photography enthusiasts. The best part of LightBox for Chelsea and me has been greeting visitors to the gallery and interacting with everyone participating in our events, workshops and exhibition openings. Every single day of sharing the gallery with the public has been a pleasure for us. Then the pandemic stopped everything cold. Yes, our patrons can view all of our exhibitions on our website, but a gallery is really nothing without the people who visit to enjoy the work in person. However, now that COVID-19 restrictions have eased a bit since late July, we have been able to reopen on a limited basis. These days we allow up to four people in the gallery at one time provided everyone wears a mask. But we have no plans to hold any public events for the foreseeable future. We’re just taking it one day at a time.
ArtsWatch: The crisis has created a financial burden for art galleries across the country. How has it affected your gallery financially?
Granger: Well, it makes our first decade look like a piece of cake. Unlike some art galleries we do not have a staff, so besides the usual operating expenses our most significant overhead expense is rent. As an art gallery we have never had one month since we opened when we didn’t worry how we were going to pay the rent. So, it’s not that we haven’t had to struggle to keep going all these years, but the pandemic has really hit us hard. But we are used to fighting, so I hope we will survive this too. That being said, in the post-pandemic world we don’t know what to expect. For a community-minded gallery that thrives on public events and camaraderie, the LightBox of old may be in jeopardy. In my opinion if social get-togethers and regular in-gallery patronage are no longer possible, then brick-and-mortar galleries with physical events and exhibits may not be possible in the future. Of course, we will try to adapt in any way necessary, but we hope to never actually close. We have to believe that the best is yet to come, and that gets us through each day.
ArtsWatch: Has the pandemic changed the way you select artists for upcoming exhibitions? Are you still actively signing new artists for future shows?
Granger: We have been having a tough time keeping our calls active, and we aren’t considering many solo shows until the pandemic is under control. We’ve had several group exhibitions since March, but most of the traffic for those events has been online on our website. We haven’t changed the way we select artists for these exhibitions, but we’ve experimented with new ways to jury the submissions to these shows. For example, we’ve had a few recent exhibitions in our new A Jury of Your Peers series, which has allowed the photographers who submit work to the shows to act as jurors. We’ve also carried on with calls to a few of our regular annual exhibitions, such as The Fantastic Film Show (a variation of the Plastic Fantastic Show) and The Pacific Northwest 40 (a variation of PDX 40). We’ve also filled the LightBox Files 2020 with prints from eight new photographers. And our recent exhibition Altered Reality was a celebration of photographic art created with historical photographic processes. As I mentioned, most visitors to the new exhibitions have viewed the shows virtually, and it appears online viewing will remain a larger part of things until people are comfortable attending social gatherings again.
ArtsWatch: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers about LightBox Gallery?
Granger: Yes, I’d like to offer a salute to our members. The patronage we’ve received from the supporting, associate and guild members of the gallery has not only helped us pay the bills, but it has convinced us that we are doing something that means something to others. Our members have always provided us the motivation to keep going forward, and we feel a great responsibility to them to keep this space open. We are immensely grateful to them for their ongoing support. We would like to invite everyone to become a member of LightBox. Our membership information can be found here: http://lightbox-photographic.com/members/membership_guidelines
LightBox has long held a special meaning for photographic artists, particularly those based in the Pacific Northwest. Many of these photographers became members in order to support the gallery’s mission to promote creative fine art photography in the region. Oregon ArtsWatch contacted several LightBox members via email to ask them about their photography and their relationship with LightBox Gallery. This section introduces several members of the gallery followed by a testimonial from each, edited for length and clarity.
Sam Blair has been taking pictures for about twenty years, but he became serious about his photography about a decade ago. He is a self-taught photographer who creates his art digitally, concentrating mostly on black-and-white portraiture and seascape photography. Also a talented poet, he often explores the complex interconnections possible through a fusion of photography and poetry. He has been a member of LightBox for about eight years, and has shown his work in more than a dozen shows at the gallery. Sam is based on the North Oregon Coast.
“I’ve been a member of LightBox from the time I first responded to a call for entries at the gallery many years ago. LightBox has been both an essential outlet for creative expression for me and a wonderful venue for socializing with other artists. The gallery is a well-managed platform for photographic artists in the very art-conscious community of Astoria, and all of the events and exhibition openings over the years have been extremely special. Michael and Chelsea have kept the lights on and have built a following and a reputation for quality for over ten years. It’s an amazing accomplishment and a tribute to their sacrifices, as well as their commitment and dedication to photography as an art form.” ~ Sam Blair
Roger Dorband is a longtime LightBox member who has supported the gallery almost from the beginning. He has shown his photography in two solo exhibitions and a number of juried exhibitions at the gallery. Based in Astoria, Roger has been a photographer for about four decades, shooting with both 35mm film and digital cameras over the years. He holds a BA in Fine Art specializing in sculpture. Before turning to photography he practiced sculpture for many years, receiving both public and private commissions, and he presented his work in several solo and group exhibitions. He has published three books showcasing his photography, and his photographs are included in numerous private and corporate collections.
“LightBox is the only gallery without 501(c)(3) status north of San Francisco that shows photography exclusively. The gallery has been important to the photographic arts in every way you can imagine. A very significant aspect to this has been its democratic submission policy, allowing early career photographers to get work up on a gallery wall. For me LightBox is not only a place to exhibit photography and to see the work of other artists, but also a place to network with other local photographers. The closure of the gallery during the pandemic has meant an unfortunate loss of contact with many of my colleagues.” ~ Roger Dorband
Jim Fitzgerald is a self-educated photographer who has been practicing his craft for over 45 years. He is a camera builder specializing in traditional large-format and ultra large-format photography, and uses his own hand-crafted cameras to capture his images. He is also a specialist in the historic printmaking process known as carbon transfer contact printing. Jim moved from California to Vancouver, Washington, almost five years ago, and found out about LightBox while doing research online. Since discovering the gallery he has shown his work there in solo and group exhibitions, and he has juried several shows. He is a member of the LightBox Guild.
“I became a member of LightBox right away when I first visited the gallery about five years ago. How can any photographer not be a member! A gallery that promotes only photography is rare, and for me it was a no-brainer to support the cause. LightBox places great value on photography as an art form, and the work exhibited at the gallery is always first rate. Every exhibition has given me ideas on how to expand my own work, and I’ve also learned a lot by discussing photography with other artists at the many gatherings and openings over the years. I encourage all photographers to become members of LightBox to help make sure that this important venue will be here for a long time to come.” ~ Jim Fitzgerald
Ken Hochfeld has been a photographer for over fifty years. As an undergraduate in college he studied both journalism and fine art photography. He worked at the Los Angeles Times as a student intern and focused on documentary photography in the early days. He later turned to fine art photography, and today considers himself a contemporary traditionalist, creating introspective images of the natural environment. He shoots both digitally and with film in medium and small formats. Ken is based in Portland, and his work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions at LightBox and in other venues across the country.
“LightBox celebrates photography in all of its forms, and the gallery has been a major participant in the promotion of the photographic arts around the country. The gallery typically shows unpredictable and unique photographic art made by both unknown and established photographers. What visitors should expect of the gallery’s monthly exhibitions is quality work. The closure of LightBox during the pandemic has been very, very sad. I miss my monthly travels to the gallery for the opening receptions, where I see many longtime friends and meet new ones. I love seeing the work of fellow photographers and learning how they use photography to express themselves.” ~ Ken Hochfeld
Joni Kabana is a visual artist, teacher and writer whose work has taken her to places across the globe and to back roads close to her cabin home in Fossil, Oregon. She has been a professional photographer for the last twenty years but has held a camera in her hands since she was eight years old. Joni has a passion for photographing people and places that are unfamiliar to her, and she loves making images that bring good things to her subjects. She also writes extensively about various subjects, teaches photography workshops, and provides consultation for photographers to help them reach their business goals or develop their portfolios.
“Years ago I kept hearing about this wonderful gallery on the Oregon coast, so I decided to check it out. I’ve been a supporting member ever since. LightBox is an organization that honors the craft of photography, and I’m consistently in awe of the gorgeous prints I see in this very welcoming gallery. I appreciate how Michael engages with the community and adapts to the changing landscape of the photographic arts. It’s an honor to show my work at LightBox, and I’ve also had the wonderful experience of being a juror. It is always great to see longtime friends gathering for a night of appreciation of the printed photo. I am concerned that we could lose this iconic institution if funding is unavailable to support galleries like LightBox.” ~ Joni Kabana
Laura Kurtenbach holds a BA and an MFA in photography, and has 25 years of professional experience as a practitioner and an educator in fine art and documentary photography. Her fine art work is mainly conceptual, and she creates photo-based images that often utilize mixed media to explore social issues, especially those addressing the treatment of women in popular culture. Much of her work also involves self-portraiture and the photographic nude. Her documentary work often concerns subjects of place, culture and historical perspective. Laura is based in Portland.
“LightBox and its exhibitions are impeccable examples of how professional photography should be presented. I have been a part of several exhibitions there, and I always appreciate the aesthetic of the space. Michael and Chelsea are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and I always feel so welcomed when I walk in the door. Their focus on supporting photographers by bringing us together for openings, artist talks and workshops to learn new processes keeps us inspired and continually innovating. I have been deeply saddened by the closure of the gallery during the pandemic. It has felt like we are missing a big part of the community and the glue holding us all together. Small local galleries like LightBox need our continued support to remain alive and well.” ~ Laura Kurtenbach
Stu Levy has been a photographer for the better part of fifty years. He is best known for his black-and-white landscape photographs, and his work follows the tradition of Ansel Adams, with whom he studied in a 1979 summer workshop at Yosemite. Stu later became an assistant instructor for Adams’s workshops, eventually teaching his own workshops in Oregon. He is also known for his Grid Portraits series, using a large-format camera to make multiple photographs of his subjects and compiling them into a grid-like composite. Stu is based in Portland, and his work has been exhibited in LightBox and many other galleries, museums and photography collections across the country.
“Michael and Chelsea Granger’s enthusiasm for photography is contagious, so I signed on as a member of LightBox soon after meeting them a little over ten years ago. LightBox shows world-class photography, and the gallery understands the fine craftsmanship involved in the art form and wants to share their appreciation with as many as possible. The gallery has sponsored juried exhibitions that have brought in entrants from far and wide. This has created an opportunity to see work that otherwise might not have garnered much local attention. It has also created a community of photographers reaching from the northwest corner of the state to Portland and beyond.” ~ Stu Levy
Jody Miller has been a visual artist most of her life. She studied painting and drawing growing up, and she was given her first camera at the age of nine. As an adult she worked for several decades as a designer/animator for the television industry, honing her skills as a photographer in her spare time. She took a workshop with Ansel Adams during his last year of teaching before his death in 1984, and she has studied with many other prominent photographers. Her photographs have appeared in a number of publications and exhibitions, and she has won many photography awards. Her portfolio is currently represented by Lightbox Photographic Gallery.
“LightBox is one of the premier exhibition venues in the Pacific Northwest, and the gallery has a worldwide following after only eleven years in existence. It is a unique venue, appealing to the fine art photographic community and emphasizing education along with exhibits, which are among the most interesting I have seen anywhere. There are so many different approaches and techniques I never would have learned about or tried myself had I not seen them on the walls of the gallery. Since we’re not able to meet there as we have in the past, the camaraderie of the community has definitely been impacted. The importance of LightBox to the photographic world cannot be overestimated.” ~ Jody Miller
Julie Moore has been creating her own style of visual art for just shy of a decade. Although she has no formal training in photography, she has felt captivated by the visual arts throughout her life. Perhaps surprisingly, she creates her images primarily with her iPhone, visualizing, capturing and processing her images with the camera she carries in her pocket. She also creates some of her images with her Holga, a medium-format film camera, and she prints much of her work using the traditional polymer-photogravure process. Julie’s work has been juried into a number of exhibitions at LightBox and in various galleries across the country.
“I became acquainted with LightBox Gallery shortly after I began my photographic journey about ten years ago. Michael and Chelsea provide a wonderful venue for experiencing fine art photography, and they have created an educational and familial environment that encourages everyone to connect and expand their art. Having the opportunity to have my art seen and juried by key leaders of the photographic arts has been a learning experience, and seeing what other photographers are doing has allowed me to expand my vision and skills. The closure of LightBox for several months has added to my general malaise during the pandemic. After having had my own fine art photographic gallery, I realize how important it is to support independent galleries. Membership is an excellent way to do that.” ~ Julie Moore
DAVID LEE MYERS
David Lee Myers began his journey with photography when he came across Ansel Adams’s Sierra Club book These We Inherit in the Berkeley University bookstore over fifty years ago. David started making his own black-and-white landscape images, very much in the tradition of Ansel Adams, by shooting the waters, hills and forests of the Columbia-Pacific region of the Northwest. As a natural history photographer, he has long depicted the beauty of nature, from his early silver-gelatin prints of the forests of Southwest Washington to his recent photographs of wild North American butterflies, many featured in his 2019 book Wings in the Light, published by Yale University Press. His work has been shown in group and solo exhibitions at LightBox and in many other venues in the region.
“I became a member of LightBox sometime in the first or second year after the gallery opened. Michael and Chelsea have created a space that would be a credit to any city in America by offering a high-quality exhibition venue that empowers artists from all over the world. And for me, having a community of photographers who share images, ideas, as well as problems and solutions, has been invaluable. I also love the parade of very different kinds of images that come through the exhibitions each year. Some show me new possibilities, and all of them reinforce a sense of exquisite quality.” ~ David Lee Myers
Denise Ross has been a photographer for more than 35 years, becoming serious about her craft after learning the concept of historical alternative photographic processes. Over the years she has made photographs using a variety of alternative methods, but she finally settled on silver gelatin paper as her favorite medium for printing her work. As silver gelatin materials became less available on the market, Denise challenged herself to learn to make her own silver gelatin emulsions in her home darkroom. Since 2008 she has been exploring the creative possibilities of handmade silver gelatin emulsions for black-and-white film and paper, and for glass dry plates. She is the author of two books and The Light Farm website, dedicated to handmade silver gelatin emulsions.
“Beyond the incalculable value of a beautiful, professional space to show prints, LightBox has hosted two important alternative process symposia, featuring keynote speakers recognized as international authorities in photography. My work has been in several exhibitions, primarily those that highlight printmaking and alternative historical processes. LightBox is the kind of space where you’re happy to have your work shown, and it’s always inspirational seeing all the work selected for each new exhibition. If you place value on fine art photography and the physical print, please consider becoming a member. The world will get back to something like normal someday. When that day comes, art must be there for us.” ~ Denise Ross
- Visit LightBox Gallery’s website at www.lightbox-photographic.com
- Pat Rose is a Portland-based photographer whose work includes landscape, street and portrait photography, as well as botanical scanography. She is a member artist at LightBox Photographic Gallery, and has shown her work in various juried group exhibitions in several galleries in Oregon. Her landscape photos have been published in two outdoor guidebooks. Much of her work can be found on her website at www.patrosephotography.com